Analysis: Ben Silverman–What Went Wrong at NBC, What He Hopes Will Go Right With Barry Diller

Jul 27, 2009  •  Post A Comment

By Michael Learmonth 


Ben Silverman is out after a two-year stint as co-chairman of NBC Entertainment, where he attempted to revive the fourth-place network with a mix of reality shows and nostalgia, like a failed remake of "Knight Rider."

The former William Morris agent, who came to NBC in 2007 as the producing wunderkind behind "The Office" and "Biggest Loser," is going back into business with Barry Diller, the InterActiveCorp CEO and former Fox network chairman who invested in Mr. Silverman’s production company, Reveille. 

The two will set up a new production company that will more overtly seek the kinds of marketing deals Mr. Silverman pushed at NBC while producing content for TV, the web and other platforms.
Mr. Silverman called the unnamed venture "Reveille meets BBDO."

Mr. Silverman came to NBC as a producer who found foreign TV formats and successfully brought them to the U.S., creating shows that were some of few bright spots for NBC, which has struggled in the network ratings.

 But Mr. Silverman wasn’t able to convert much of that pre-NBC success into hits as co-chairman of the network. He was hampered severely by a writer’s strike, which crippled a year’s worth of TV production, but he also admits that life inside a bureaucracy wasn’t the best fit.

 "I was a manager, I was no longer a picker, a chooser of shows; I would do HR meetings and finance meetings and retreats," Mr. Silverman told Advertising Age.

 Mr. Silverman will be replaced by the chairman of NBC Universal’s stable of cable networks, Jeff Gaspin, who will become chairman of NBC Universal Television Entertainment. In addition to cable and the network, Mr. Gaspin oversees NBC Universal’s own studio, Universal Media Networks.

 "This new structure helps us align all of our TV entertainment assets under one veteran executive at a time when continued innovation is essential," NBCU CEO Jeff Zucker said in a statement.
Talk of Mr. Silverman leaving NBC has been rampant this year, and both sides seem to grow increasingly uncomfortable with one another. Just last week, Mr. Silverman was quoted at a Los Angeles conference talking about sales in the "upfront" TV advertising market, and suggested NBC and WPP’s Group M had completed negotiations. But NBC executives were quick to suggest that he had misspoken.

 But some of his ideas have gained traction, especially the idea of bringing marketers into a show’s production process early enough so that the integration is smooth. He also brought ideas about new models for sharing the costs of TV production, such as when NBC entered into an unusual agreement with DirecTV to help keep "Friday Night Lights" on the air. And people will be watching the return of "Chuck" in 2010 to see if a promotional agreement NBC has struck with Subway will keep the program on the air.

 Mr. Silverman, though, pined to get out of the network and return to his more entrepreneurial roots. He had sold Reveille to Elisabeth Murdoch’s Shine Limited in 2008.

 "Having run a talent agency and then being inside a media company it was becoming clear to me that the businesses are siloed and those need to be broken down," he said. "This is something the media companies are going to have to do more and more but it is going to take them longer to do it because they have to support the entrenched system as well."

 As an example, Mr. Silverman held up the marketing barrage for Microsoft’s search engine Bing.com, which included integrations across NBC, from standard 30-second spots and custom content on "The Philanthropist" to jaunty mentions on air by stars such as Jimmy Fallon.
He said he’ll be better able to put those kinds of deals together outside the network, as well as create content that will work with different economics than network TV, where a single episode can cost $1 million to produce.

 IAC has been attempting to build its content business on a micro-scale for several years through production arms such as College Humor, which recently launched its own production company. All the while, though, Mr. Diller has been steadfast that none of IAC’s content initiatives signal a move back into TV. Now that’s changed.

Mr. Silverman’s departure from NBC resolves what some construe as a distraction, where his work style and social schedule rankled NBC’s more buttoned-up network execs and provided regular fodder for the blogs.

 Despite the failed shows and little ratings progress, Mr. Silverman said he should be judged by the performance of NBC’s fall season, the first he’s been able to develop and market without the distraction of a strike. This includes the move of Jay Leno to 10 p.m., a significant shift to the network TV landscape.

 He’ll be staying on at NBC through the beginning of the fall season. His co-chairman at NBC Entertainment, Marc Graboff, will now report to Mr. Gaspin.

 With all of NBC’s TV businesses reporting to one executive, Mr. Gaspin said the company will be better able to select shows that they can make money from over time, on the network, cable, and in syndication. But profitable isn’t enough; he said NBC will win again in the ratings.

 "Even though the [network] model is challenged it is still the best way to get the biggest audience sampled quickly," he told Ad Age. "We are going to have a better hit ratio than we had before."


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