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Column: Josef Adalian on Ben Silverman, The CW and ‘Swingtown’

Clearing out the notebook as the summer ends and a new TV season dawns…

Ben Silverman has been at NBC for barely a year. His first development season was interrupted by a 100-day writers strike. Not a single show developed by Mr. Silverman for a fall season at the network has premiered.

Naturally, the Hollywood rumor mill is already predicting his departure.

Ben Silverman and Teri Weinberg

NBC's Ben Silverman, left, and Teri Weinberg

Mr. Silverman doesn’t need anyone to defend his talent or his tenure. If there’s one thing Ben Silverman knows how to promote, it’s Ben Silverman. Even when he’s in China, he finds a way to get media attention.

I do wish Mr. Silverman would start developing more shows in the vein of “Hill Street Blues” and “L.A. Law” and fewer spiritual successors to “Manimal.” (Although, I must confess, I loved “Manimal.” I mean, the dude could turn himself into any animal he wanted to be! Sweet!)

And legitimate questions have been raised in publications such as the Los Angeles Times questioning the relationship between Mr. Silverman and ShineReveille, the production company he headed before coming to NBC. Ordering so many shows from the company you founded probably wasn’t such a smart idea.

But it’s madness—and just plain unfair—to begin banging the drums of doom for an executive before he’s even had a chance to show off his first development season. Same goes for all the negative buzz surrounding Teri Weinberg, the NBC executive vice president who has been serving as the de facto president of NBC Entertainment since almost the first day she arrived at the network with Mr. Silverman.

The fact that NBC ordered its new fall shows before all the other networks—and yet still doesn’t feel comfortable showing any of them to the press or the public—isn’t an encouraging sign. Yet it’s also worth remembering that ABC and its sister studio have in recent years made a habit of turning allegedly “troubled” shows—from “Grey’s Anatomy” to “Brothers and Sisters”—into major hits.

What’s more, while Greg Daniels and Silvio Horta are the creative powers who made, respectively, “The Office” and “Ugly Betty” success stories for Reveille under Mr. Silverman’s command, he and Ms. Weinberg didn’t just show up to the set with donuts every few weeks. Give them some credit for bringing a track record to NBC.

It may well be that, come December, NBC will find itself picking up the pieces of a disastrous fall launch. Viewers may reject Mr. Silverman’s focus on feel-good fare that doesn’t challenge viewers or break much new ground creatively.

But until the audience delivers its verdict, some restraint in all the “Ben’s a goner” buzz is very much in order.

Or, as Mr. Silverman might put it, “Dudes, would everybody just chill?”

. . .

Sometimes companies make decisions that simply make no sense. They take actions that prompt an immediate response of, “Really?”

Last week, for example, Daily Variety reported that multiple Tribune-owned stations had opted to drop their CW branding in favor of more generic labeling. The company’s Houston station is now known as Channel 39 instead of CW39, the paper said.

I’ve never been one to think that people watch or don’t watch stations based on logos or slogans or even names. In the cable world, networks like Bravo and VH1 have become powerhouses despite being saddled with decades-old monikers that no longer bear the slightest connection to their programming missions.

But you don’t have to be a conspiracy theorist to start wondering whether Tribune had ulterior motives for dumping the CW branding from some of its stations.

As Daily Variety noted, Tribune has been dropping some not-too-subtle hints recently that it’s unhappy with The CW. It switched its San Diego outlet from The CW to Fox. It lobbied hard for The CW to lease out its Sunday night prime time to Media Rights Capital. And in June, TelevisionWeek reported that Tribune had begun developing alternative prime-time programming—which it could use for programming if something happened to its relationship with The CW.

Perhaps to squash any such speculation, Tribune Chief Operating Officer Randy Michaels last week allowed himself to be quoted in a CW press release touting the network's early ratings successes this season. “Association with the burgeoning CW brand is an asset to any station group, including our own,” he said. “We have had many local success stories this week, and we congratulate the network and will continue to work closely with them to ensure continued growth and success.”

Mr. Michaels’ statement doesn't change the fact that getting rid of the CW brand—and doing so just days before the network embarks upon what many believe to be a do-or-die season—smells very much like a political move. It seems designed to send a clear vote of no confidence to CW brass.

Tribune has every right to be disappointed with The CW. The network has underperformed.

The company also has every right to call its stations whatever it wants. And, as a colleague pointed out to me, a number of local stations around the country have started to de-emphasize their network affiliations, at least on their Web sites. It could well be that we’re about to go back to the days when local stations emphasized their own brands as opposed to those of their network partners.

But in what universe does it make sense to spend two years building equity in a brand, only to abandon that brand virtually overnight and on the eve of rolling out a whole new line of products associated with that brand? It’s as if Wal-Mart decided to rename itself Buy-More just a few weeks before the start of the holiday shopping season.

Weird. Just weird.

. . .

Not to sound like a broken record, but here goes anyway: CBS needs to save “Swingtown.”

Back in July, I made the case for why patience would be a virtue in the case of the network’s retro drama. Since then, CBS went through with plans to move the show to Friday. Predictably, ratings plummeted as viewers realized the show was doomed.

'Swingtown'

SUMMER LOVIN' The 1970s-styled drama 'Swingtown' sails off into the sunset.

The season finale of “Swingtown” aired Friday. I watch CBS’ sudsy “Big Brother” religiously, and if the network made any attempt to hype “Swingtown’s” swansong, I certainly missed it.

How sad. CBS insiders will tell you that many people there love the show, and that everyone wishes it could live. They’ll then point to middling reviews from critics, and massive defections by advertisers, as reasons for why “Swingtown” just can’t work on CBS. Legitimate excuses all.

If CBS had a recent history of supporting shows outside of its comfort zone—crime procedurals and broad comedies—I’d be inclined to let “Swingtown’s” likely death pass quietly.

But despite being led by Leslie Moonves—a modern legend in the broadcasting business whose golden reputation is well-deserved—CBS seems stubbornly unable to commit to dramas that dare to be different.

Series such as “Love Monkey,” “Clubhouse,” “Cane,” “Jericho” and, yes, “Moonlight” all had the potential to help CBS break free from its blood-and-bullets addiction. But when viewers didn’t immediately greet such efforts with open arms, CBS simply gave up. (Sorry, a brief reprise for “Jericho” doesn’t count as commitment.)

Even on the comedy side, “How I Met Your Mother” has to wait until the last minute for its renewals, despite being a young-adult magnet and a buzz machine. That’s not a good sign for “Worst Week,” which looks and feels different from any other comedy on CBS.

CBS probably will do fine in the ratings this season. It knows its audience well, and it knows how to schedule shows smartly in order to maximize their ratings potential.

But “CSI” and its offspring are showing signs of age. The network hasn’t had a reality hit in at least five years. And ABC and Fox are poised to pull away in the race for younger demographics.

It’s time for CBS to be bold. NBC believed in “The Office” when the rest of the town scoffed, and now it’s one of the top comedies on TV. Fox overlooked a rocky first season for “24” and was rewarded with a signature franchise.

Even if “Swingtown” never turns into a big hit, the simple act of demonstrating a determination to be different will reap rewards. Studios will feel more comfortable bringing edgier fare to CBS. Viewers may begin to trust that it’s OK to form a bond with non-procedurals airing on the network.

CBS needs to save “Swingtown.”

(Corrected new affiliation for Tribune San Diego station)

Comments (7)

william :

CBS needs to realize that Swingtown is a fantastic show and that given it was shifted to Friday night it still pulled decent rtgs for a summer series. I certainly am not alone for my fondness of this series. Outside of 2 1/2 Men & sports this is the first time I consistently tuned into CBS consistenly since Dallas.

Dave:

SaveSwingtown.com

I love this show! Started a blog to keep up with the renewal status!

Mark Jeffries:

Josef:

The Trib-owned station in San Diego is now Fox, not MyTV. It's the former Fox station that's now MyTV.

Phil K:

Maybe they should give this show a second chance now that it is showing the harmful aftereffects of the swingers' lifestyle.
Seems the Parents' Television Council was upset too soon. Tirs out the show is a morality play, after all...

Mark, you got it half right. The former Fox affil, XETV, is now a CW affil, not MyNet.

alison:

Ditto Mark Jeffries. I doubt if the folks at FOX5 in SanDiego would be thrilled with your misrepresentation of their affiliation. An affiliation they worked very hard to get!!

sarah :

I thought that swing town was way more better then three and ahalf men was any day. I know that when I sit down and I think about both shows, I know that my daughter knows about way more on that show then swing town. Not only that, swing town is on later in the evening here and family guy is on in the early evening. Now come on..... Whats up with that???? I would rather have my daughter watch swing town than Family Guy. I think that they should keep swing town. No reason to take it off. I say keep it and get rid of family guy any day!!!

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