In Depth

12 to Watch: Ben Silverman

There are two moments that encapsulate Ben Silverman’s eight-month leadership of NBC.

The first was the fabulously awkward Hollywood Radio & Television Society luncheon in October where the NBC co-chair joined the presidents of his network competitors on stage for the first time.

Mr. Silverman’s bumpy NBC hire that ousted the popular Kevin Reilly, combined with his frequent media boasts about his young(ish) executive prowess and fresh approach to running a network, had alienated his more senior competitors.

At the time, Mr. Silverman’s early programming choices (the controversial casting of Isaiah Washington on “Bionic Woman,” launching the reality competition series “Phenomenon”) were failing to bear ratings fruit, and one couldn’t help but wonder if there was any network executive substance behind his isolating self-salesmanship.

The second moment came very recently, when Mr. Silverman’s first major volley of programming decisions hit the air: a celebrity version of “The Apprentice,” a couples edition of “The Biggest Loser” and a remake of “American Gladiators.”

The January reality slate debuted to strong ratings and helped bounced NBC into an unexpectedly competitive position. “Gladiators” was the highest-rated new series premiere of the season (until Fox’s “Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles” stole that mantle a week later). Of course, it had yet to confront Fox’s “American Idol” and other strong competitors such as ABC’s “Lost.”

So that’s Mr. Silverman’s NBC story thus far: First a headline-making new hire, proud as an NBC peacock at crashing the broadcast executive clubhouse; now a network leader whose moves are showing some preliminary signs of effectiveness.

“It was hard to really get involved in the schedule until now, so it’s nice to see ‘Apprentice,’ ‘Loser’ and ‘Gladiators’ working,” Mr. Silverman said. “Traditionally we slide down before ‘American Idol’ returns, but not here. It’s fun to see the strategy playing out.”

The key follow-up questions to this sudden burst of Nielsen success: Will Mr. Silverman’s reality ratings hold up, and will his scripted choices (he bears executive producer credits on shows such as NBC’s “The Office” and ABC’s “Ugly Betty”) also score with viewers?

Both will be answered in the coming weeks as his reality series play out and NBC debuts its revamp of “Knight Rider” and new series “Lipstick Jungle.” The latter was ordered by Mr. Reilly, but Mr. Silverman credits one of his hires, Teri Weinberg, who oversees NBC’s scripted efforts, with developing the show.

With “Gladiators” and “Knight,” Mr. Silverman’s choices have been knocked for mining his youth for recyclable programming ideas, but the executive notes that one should pick programs one genuinely likes.

“When I program, the first thing [I consider] is whether I like it,” he said. “I like extreme sports, and the physicality and myth of ‘Gladiators.’ I like the sexy fun of ‘Lipstick Jungle’ and ‘Knight Rider.’”

Then, making one of those age-centric declarations that set his rivals’ teeth on edge, Mr. Silverman added, “I’m not going to be doing this job when I’m not in the demo.”

Since his hire last year, Mr. Silverman said he has filled in his knowledge of affiliates, cable distribution and sports and has expanded his knowledge of ad sales.

“It’s incredibly time-consuming and never-ending, and always dynamic and challenging,” he said. “Production had a lot of those rhythms, but the decisions have immediate visible impact that gets played back to you. The chair itself comes with a lot of scrutiny and attention.”

Asked whether there’s anything he would have done differently this past year, Mr. Silverman laughed and said there’s plenty. Pressed for specifics, he considered his answer carefully. “I would have learned how to talk to the press,” he said.

With Mr. Silverman seemingly on the verge of uncharacteristic self-abasement, I asked if he were an outsider who had read all of his comments this past year, would he like himself? What would he think of that bragging, partying executive in the press?

But Silverman is always Silverman.

“I’d think: ‘I want to go hang out with that guy!’” he said. “‘I think that person is real.’

“I’d also think, ‘He’s pushing against convention.’ I love being [TVWeek’s] ‘one to watch’ because it implies the best is yet to come. And I always like living in the vanguard.”

AT A GLANCE
Name: Ben Silverman
Title: Co-Chair, NBC Entertainment and Universal Media Studios
How long in current position: Eight months
Year of birth: 1970
Place of birth: Pittsfield, Mass.
What to watch for: Whether reality efforts like “American Gladiators” and “Celebrity Apprentice” can maintain their momentum and if scripted projects “Knight Rider” and “Lipstick Jungle” bring in viewers.
Who knew? He’s a huge history buff—it was his major in college—and avid follower of politics.

Ben Silverman

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