Behind NBC’s Ratings Spike
Silverman’s Choices Starting to Pay Off, but There Remain Tough Trials Ahead
For a while there, NBC Co-Chair Ben Silverman seemed famous for merely being famous, his feuds with rivals and partying lifestyle more reliably entertaining than the occasional on-air manifestations of his programming decisions.
Since the start of the year, however, NBC has enjoyed a sigh-of-relief ratings bounce that’s come from unexpected sources. The traditional fourth-place network has been leading 2008 with the highest-rated new series debut of the season (“American Gladiators”). “The Apprentice,” a program narrowly renewed after a low-rated season last year, has returned strong with a celebrity edition. This season’s second round of “The Biggest Loser” had a record premiere. Even stalwart “Deal or No Deal” is performing better than usual.
“This is the first time we could really get inside how everything was scheduled, marketed and delivered,” Mr. Silverman said. “We really were unbelievably strategic. We looked at all the aspects and we weren’t able to [entirely] influence the network until now.”
Dozens of critics nationwide were recently asked, as part of TelevisionWeek’s upcoming semi-annual Critics Poll, which networks they thought were going to perform best and worst as the writers strike continued. NBC was the overwhelming favorite to flop.
“What’s NBC got? ‘The Apprentice,’ ‘Biggest Loser’ and ‘Deal or No Deal’—three exhausted shows,” wrote one critic. Another opined: “Their emergency January-February lineup is too one-note [reality] and will drive people away.” A third replied: “NBC will be hurt most because the strike will accelerate Ben Silverman’s drive to remove all quality and replace it with schlocky reality.”
Yet it is NBC’s scripted midseason replacement dramas such as “Medium” and the “Law & Order” flagship that have premiered unspectacularly compared to their previous rounds.
Mr. Silverman admitted he’s enjoying this moment on top, yet is aware of its inevitable brevity. Fox is about to unleash “American Idol,” ABC has the return of “Lost” and CBS has its “Survivor”/”Big Brother” combo.
“We’re not pretending Fox isn’t going to dominate,” he said. “But we’re scrappy and we’re in there.”
By launching a 100% original slate at the very beginning of the year, Mr. Silverman got a jump-start on competitors and roped in viewers before his competition heated up. NBC even scored a couple of competitive victories against the premieres of ABC’s “Cashmere Mafia” and “Dance Wars.”
Here’s how he approached NBC’s winter strike lineup:
- “Gladiators”: “I was thinking of launching ‘Knight Rider’ [Jan. 6] but I really believed in ‘Gladiators’ and saw how well the repeats were doing on ESPN Classic,” he said. “There are a million things that hurt [ABC’s] ‘Duel,’ but one was it had no branded host. With Hulk Hogan and Laila Ali and the pre-sold brand, it made me feel good about scheduling [“Gladiators’”] first three hours within [two days] so we could feed it night to night.”
- “Celebrity Apprentice”: By adding celebrities to the “Apprentice” formula and moving the show back to its former Thursday slot, viewers returned to check out the veteran series. “If it wasn’t for the strike, we wouldn’t have been able to do it,” Mr. Silverman said.
- “The Biggest Loser: Couples”: Having just aired a season last fall, NBC risked doubling up for a second round, and also expanded all episodes to two hours. Despite a New Year’s Day launch, the show shot up 39% from last fall’s premiere to generate its best premiere to date; it nearly matched that figure in week two.
“I always felt ‘Biggest Loser’ should be on in the first quarter because that’s when people are focused on their weight-loss goals,” Mr. Silverman said. “And I felt that using couples was a great play and that made it feel like a different show again.”
With “Idol” around the corner, “Loser” is certain to fall from its time-period perch. NBC’s goal is to earn a healthy second place.
- “Deal or No Deal”: Mr. Silverman met with producers to go over “every aspect of the show” looking for ways to improve its tried-and-true screaming-at-briefcases format. One result is January’s stunt to gradually increase the number of $1 million cases on the game board until a contestant finally takes the top prize. Also, the premiere of Friday night’s “1 vs. 100,” aided by a battle-of-the-sexes twist, gave NBC a narrow victory that night against repeats.
“Everybody knocks me because I like finding [pre-existing] material,” he said. “If you’ve got a franchise like ‘Apprentice’ or ‘Deal,’ you have to figure out how to reinvent it. We really challenge our producer partners to think of ways to freshen things up.”
The biggest question moving forward is whether Mr. Silverman’s reality slate can maintain its promise—competitors predict a ratings drop for “Gladiators” in particular—and whether his scripted projects can draw viewers as well.
Next month, NBC debuts its “Knight Rider” movie/backdoor pilot and the long-awaited dramedy “Lipstick Jungle” (which Mr. Silverman credits his scripted programming head Teri Weinberg as having helped shepherd).
Mr. Silverman said he expects “Sex and the City” author Candace Bushnell’s “Lipstick” to fare better than the similarly themed “Cashmere Mafia”—two projects with a tangled history. “Sex” executive producer Darren Star reportedly pitched “Lipstick” to ABC knowing his former collaborator, Ms. Bushnell, was working on a similar project.
“‘Cashmere Mafia’ feels dead,” Mr. Silverman said. “We’re going to have a wide open space for ‘Lipstick.’ Women know the backstory that Candace wrote the book it was based on. … There’s an awareness that ABC didn’t play fair on that one.”
ABC declined to comment.
Whether “Lipstick” draws viewers or not, at the very least viewers can expect Mr. Silverman’s rivalries to remain entertaining.