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Q&A: Silverman Speaks Out on Year One

Jul 20, 2008  •  Post A Comment

Ben Silverman
Ben Silverman joined NBC a year ago this month, teaming up with Marc Graboff to tackle the dual role of chairmen, NBC Entertainment and Universal Media Studios. It’s been an eventful year, dominated by the disruption of the writers strike and the Big Five networks’ continuing struggle against ratings erosion.
The ever-flashy Mr. Silverman was an instant media star, featuring in lengthy profiles in Esquire and the New York Times. He’s been a bit quieter lately, focusing on trying to find new hits—and new business models—to lift NBC out of fourth place in the ratings.
As he prepares to meet with reporters in Beverly Hills this week at the Television Critics Association summer press tour, Mr. Silverman paused for a moment to talk to TelevisionWeek deputy editor and columnist Josef Adalian about his first year on the job, the status of “The Office” spinoff and whether criticism that he’s hurt the NBC brand is fair. An edited transcript appears below.
TelevisionWeek: It’s been one year since you joined NBC. What would you say your biggest accomplishments have been?
Ben Silverman: I think restructuring our organization and re-engineering how we approach the business. It’s been transformative. Clearly the success of our “in-front” and how we go about engaging our advertising partners is an obvious place that’s delivered bottom-line success. And then the reorganization of how we apply our costs against our programming has been an unbelievable win for us to the financial bottom line. You know you already have seen those results played big in NBC Entertainment’s performance. And then, landing and securing a roster of A-list talent to build off of the great talent we already are in business with has also been especially rewarding, and we can’t wait to bring those talents to market. But between Amy Poehler, Molly Shannon, John Michael Higgins, Christian Slater … it’s pretty extraordinary.
TVWeek: Is the job everything you thought it would be? Is it your dream job?
Mr. Silverman: I think this was the most difficult year to ever enter one of these jobs because of all of the labor disputes that took place, forcing it to be a very different kind of year. So that I think was not something anyone who would think about these jobs would anticipate. You know, I mean, you’re not going to assume when you’re imagining a job it’s going to be one in which you’re going to be helping … managing or having to react to labor issues. We quickly became prepared for it and I think reacted intelligently, but it’s not what you expect when you’re going into the job. You know what I mean? That forced a lot of decision-making in a different way.
TVWeek: Are we having fun yet?
Mr. Silverman: Are we having fun? Yeah, baby. You know what? There are moments that are fun and there are moments that are hard. You know, just like the rhythm of life, you know, it’s always about that. It’s kind of like there are moments that are extraordinarily exciting and you watch something you put together really perform, and then, because we take it so personally, there are moments in which things don’t play out the way you want. And I think there are so many different facets to this job, especially in managing both the studio and the network, that require so many different elements of your brain, which is exciting, and I love those elements of big business and really diving in as the business transforms.
TVWeek: What would you say has been your one biggest disappointment or even failure?
Mr. Silverman: I think that “Quarterlife” would be the biggest disappointment in that it just didn’t perform to even half the level I would have thought it would have. I don’t feel I would ever look back on it differently, because the whole thought process before it, behind it and around it was, “How do we get a scripted show when there’s a strike? How do we build something that’s potentially interactive? How do we gain a foothold in the digital content space and then hopefully it’s going to work also on-air?” Unfortunately, it didn’t perform.
TVWeek: What’s happening with “The Office” spinoff and Amy Poehler?
Mr. Silverman: So here’s where we’re at. Obviously, Amy is somebody that shows up once in a blue moon, you know what I mean? And it’s so perfect coming out of the NBC family, but also in the great tradition of what Tina Fey is, what Steve Carrell is, what Jason Lee is, what Alec Baldwin is—these kind of movie/TV stars. We have these performers who hit beyond the medium, and who operate in a kind of cultural milieu, not just in a performance milieu. Mike Schur and Greg Daniels had a relationship with her and Mike actually had a really strong one from his work with Will Arnett when Mike was on “Arrested Development,” and then through his relationship with Amy directly when he was on “Saturday Night Live.” The opportunity to grab her was so exciting. Now the other side of it is that she’s pregnant. So you know the timing of when we can bring her show to air may not fall into the same timing we were trying to hit for a spinoff. (Editor’s note: NBC had planned to premiere an “Office” spinoff after the Super Bowl in February.) So that’s kind of opened up some timing questions, because obviously you wait for Amy to have her baby.
TVWeek: So you’re not doing a spinoff of “The Office”?
Mr. Silverman: No—we’re also going to be pursuing an “Office” spinoff as well, but right now, for the moment, Greg and Mike are focused on this show, which is more in the kind of style of “The Office,” but it’s not like the Jeffersons appeared in “All in the Family.” Do you know what I mean? Her character—which is something we’re still working on and developing—but you get it.
TVWeek: When do you think is the earliest it could be on it? You’re not going to have the show in time for airing after the Super Bowl?
Mr. Silverman: I don’t think so. … I think we’re looking at the end of the first quarter, beginning of the second quarter.
TVWeek: So what will you put on after the Super Bowl?
Mr. Silverman: We are working on it and deciding. And there’s still potential that if a spinoff came together quickly enough…. But I don’t know right now if we will get to that because the guys have been so focused on developing for Amy. They landed her with an idea they kind of basically created to lock her in.
TVWeek: What is the idea?
Mr. Silverman: I’m going to let them talk about it. Just Greg and Mike. I don’t want to.
TVWeek: Do people in Hollywood misunderstand what your job is at NBC? People want to think of you as a head of entertainment, but from the day you officially took this job, you sort of resisted that label.
Mr. Silverman: Yeah, I mean I definitely do. In Hollywood, they want to lock you into the smallest silo possible. They want you to be the head of prime-time broadcast network scripted comedy development. And if it’s not scripted, but it’s still comedy prime-time broadcast, it’s another person. And if it’s drama, it’s totally another person. And if God forbid it may go to cable, that’s a whole other. It’s a world that embraces the silo. And in the companies I’ve run, I have always tried to operate outside of the silos. That throws some off in Hollywood.
TVWeek: So is Teri Weinberg sort of really running entertainment?
Mr. Silverman: She definitely is all over it. She is doing it in scripted, but the other part [of the entertainment president job is running scripted and unscripted and late night]. You look at Fox and, you know, in fact you really have a president of scripted and a president of reality.
TVWeek: Does it make sense to name Teri president of entertainment, then?
Mr. Silverman: I think that Teri is doing a phenomenal job. And based on the quality of the material that I’m looking at her execute—holy cow! Am I bullish? The fact is, because of the strike, she hasn’t been able to bring any of her product to air yet. On her work threshold, meaning the volume of work, she is executing. And on her managing both current and scripted together, you know, she is clearly deserving of a big title. She has currently a big title, but there’s no question that everyone at NBC Universal and GE, including me, has their eyes on her to continue to grow.
TVWeek (via e-mail): Tell me about “Chime In”. What does it mean? How will we see it used on- and off-air?
Mr. Silverman: Chime In is about making use of one of our more valuable brand attributes, our chimes, and connecting them directly to our audience and allowing them the opportunity to chime in. It will be slowly deployed throughout the Olympics and more profoundly in fall.
TVWeek: In all fairness, we haven’t seen a lot of your scripted shows. But one of the big criticisms about your first year has been that, in your love of all things retro, you’ve maybe been a little bit too much “A-Team” and not enough “Hill Street Blues”…
Mr. Silverman: To be judged by a strike year, when you haven’t been able to bring a single piece of content to the air, is pretty unfair. So I think what we should be judged on, and what I will happily stand up and be judged on, will be “Kings” and “Kath and Kim” and “My Own Worst Enemy” and “Robinson Crusoe” and “The Philanthropist.” And as you see those shows come to market, and the new shows that we’ll be bringing to market, you will see that same quality level that I had as a producer. I personally got nominated again (for an Emmy), and my shows got 16 Emmy nominations (this year). My shows have garnered over 100 Emmy nominations personally in less than three years. So I definitely live and die personally on a qualitative level and love quality programs. But it’s really hard to do when no writers are available to write for you during the year. I’m also trying to live in a perfect storm of where we operate as a business, we manage for margin, but we still know and enjoy the creative success, whether it’s validated by an Emmy or validated via the buzz that we really care about at NBC.
TVWeek (via e-mail): How’s the partnership with Marc Graboff working out? How do you divide things?
Mr. Silverman: The partnership with Marc and I has worked perfectly and smoothly. We manage and divide duties with most operational roles including finance, legal and biz affairs reporting to Marc on a day-to-day basis. Meanwhile, the more creative roles including programming, marketing and research report more into me. Neither one of us makes a major move without the other.
TVWeek (via e-mail): You’ve heard all the rumors about you. The tigers in the bathtub. NBC hiring a designated driver for you. Rehab. Does it distract you from doing your job? Have you had to make any changes to your personal life?
Mr. Silverman: I am a true member of the American society and culture and I am constantly embracing all elements of that culture. That said, Marc and I are taking classes so we can open a Siegfried and Roy review where the commissary used to be.

27 Comments

  1. ben, i love ufo -sci fi,do more shows,on that storyline! also bring cameras to my ufo progam,the ufo adventure,for your eyes only video,with guest speakers,and audience partisapatin. oct. 23, glen cove library, long island,new york. 7pm, its my 4th. public library program. other worlds are watching! member mufon,—mk — 516-822-6915-

  2. fear itself is a failure…and ben committed to 13 episodes…that tells me the guys all talk and screw your self praise for scoring cheap licensing fees for that crap.
    if your so brilliant then u would find a new “hit” show that u paid small licensing fees for..instead u are paying a low fee for a piece of slop nobody watches…u are out of touch with the american public and what they want…i expect your slate to dump in the fall..nbc will remain in 4th place until bonnie hammer takes over…silverman will walk away with a golden parachute and a better job somewhere else…like kevin reilly these guys fail “upward”…

  3. Two series, one based on Robinson Crusoe and one on King David.
    Not a chance they will hit.
    Maybe he needs to rehab his taste in TV programming.

  4. Its all about trial & error. I’m surprised Fear Itself is not doing so well. It’s mini horror movies. I actually like the show, but I’m a freak anyway.
    Glad to see Ben bring Nashville Star to National Network TV. Great show. Wasn’t that one of your production babies?
    Now that ER is in its final season, what’s next?
    Looking forward to some of the new shows & of course, HEROES!
    I AM an NBC fan!
    ROTFLMFAO

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