First TV, Then the World

Feb 12, 2007  •  Post A Comment

A hive of frantic staffers buzz in and out of the trio of bungalows on the Universal Studios lot from which producer Ben Silverman churns out hits like “The Office” and “Ugly Betty.”

Haggard and untucked, the staff attends phones that seldom stop ringing. Assistants do not enter-they burst through the door of Mr. Silverman’s main bungalow, documents in hand, like reporters in a 1930s newsroom.

The hectic pace is driven by Mr. Silverman’s current production slate. In addition to “Office” and “Betty,” he’s responsible for NBC’s “The Biggest Loser,” FX’s “30 Days,” USA Network’s “Nashville Star” and other shows, with myriad pilots and development deals percolating at any given time. On Thursday night alone, he has three series airing in prime time.

“I’m like the Thursday night storm of programming,” he declared.

In a business obsessed with betting on proven ideas, Mr. Silverman has made a career out of finding popular imports that can be translated and revamped for U.S. audiences. He travels the world, affably asking strangers what they watch on television. The resulting programs are not all hits, but most bring something new to the network table.

Yet Mr. Silverman’s ambitions extend beyond television. After improving prime time, he wants-quite literally-to save America’s reputation around the world.

Fitting in among his troops, the typically impeccably dressed Mr. Silverman is disheveled, seeming as if he’s skipped a few vacation days. An unopened congratulatory bottle of Dom Perignon sits on his desk next to a bobblehead of “The Office” character Dwight Schrute. Mr. Silverman cites the show as the favorite among his offspring.

Everything in the office has some connection to a project, Mr. Silverman said. The career focus springs from Mr. Silverman’s unwillingness to let his accomplishments diminish his drive. In a 2005 column he penned for The Independent newspaper in London, he wrote that British producers risked losing their creative edge because of the loads of money they were making by exporting concepts for series.

“I’m far from comfortable,” Mr. Silverman said. “I got one show, `Ugly Betty,’ in its first season. `Office’ is third. By no means am I sitting on the 16th year of `Law and Order,’ or even the 100th episode of `Deal or No Deal.’ It’s one episode at a time.”

A graduate of Tufts University, Mr. Silverman got his break working for former NBC legend Brandon Tartikoff at New World Entertainment in the early 1990s. Then he was lured away by William Morris.

The talent agency sent him to London where, as one story has it, he was instructed to meet as many influential people as possible. Within weeks of arriving, he had arranged a meeting at Buckingham Palace.

In London, Mr. Silverman was perfectly positioned to take advantage of the British reality invasion, and helped package “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” and “Big Brother.”

He left the agency to launch his own company, the Los Angeles-based Reveille, in 2002. Rather than ask networks for license fees as most producers do, Mr. Silverman convinced advertisers to fund shows in exchange for product placement and ad units. That model got his first major series, “The Restaurant,” off the ground in 2003.

Since then, Mr. Silverman has become known for finding foreign shows ripe for adaptation across multiple genres (“Betty,” many forget, started as a telenovela). Lately, however, he’s noticed most breakouts tend to be American ideas, including his own “Identity” game show, which is returning to NBC this spring.

“Ben has a great gut for formats and ideas that will break through, and he knows how to put those ideas together,” said NBC Entertainment President Kevin Reilly. “He’s delivered shows we’re proud of and that are at the heart of rebuilding our schedule.”

There have been stumbles. His adaptation of “Coupling” famously bombed. But Mr. Silverman’s agency experience taught him two valuable lessons: how to sell an idea, and how to take rejection.

“You learn to hear `No’ a lot, and you get a strong stomach,” he said.

Mr. Silverman’s ambitions lie beyond hit series and awards. He has those. During the Golden Globes in January, both “Office” and “Betty” were nominated for best comedy series (“Betty” took the Globe).

The money that would accompany a franchise like “Law and Order” is a goal. But it’s not the endgame.

“I want to go into public service,” Mr. Silverman said. “I want to make a lot of money out of what we’re doing as a company and then be able to segue into public service.”

By public service, he doesn’t mean running for office. Rather, he envisions setting up a George Soros-style nonprofit group, or becoming “minister of propaganda” for a progressive-minded White House.

“I want to promote America, the great liberty found in a capitalist democracy,” he said. “I think we’re doing a horrible job and we need to reclaim our position. And I’ve worked every day around the world with international production companies and know about messaging and pro-social programming.”

Mr. Silverman sees producing and public service as intertwined.

“Betty,” he said, is about immigration and beauty issues. “The Biggest Loser,” he said, promotes fitness. “30 Days” explores all sorts of topical issues. One of his current NBC pilots, “I’m With Stupid,” is about the friendship between a homeless man and a disabled person.

So for now, producing will remain his focus. His company just signed a two-year first-look deal with NBC Universal in February.

“[Entering public service] is still years away,” Mr. Silverman said. “I’m only 36.”