Memorial Day weekend felt more like the Fourth of July at NBC as Jeff Zucker put the finishing touches on an explosive rewiring of the Peacock’s Burbank exec structure.
Zucker has recruited Ben Silverman for a key gig at the Peacock’s West Coast operations, sending a clear message that he’s serious about blowing up the old network business model.
Instead of turning to someone who came up through the usual ranks as a development exec or business affairs wonk, Zucker is counting on the flashy, energetic Reveille topper (and former agent) to help reinvent NBC Entertainment and push the network out of the ratings cellar.
The clumsy way in which Silverman’s still-pending deal has been handled — many would say mishandled — certainly starts things off on a rocky note, however. The move has already alienated two of Zucker’s top lieutenants — NBC Entertainment prexy Kevin Reilly, who will ankle, and NBC development chief Katherine Pope, whose future with the conglom is murky.
The Peacock could announce Reilly’s departure — and Silverman’s arrival — as soon as today. Complicating matters: A deal to bring Silverman to the net would apparently involve NBC U buying Reveille, or at least compensating Silverman in such a way as to make leaving the company attractive.
Many of Silverman’s new responsibilities had been handled by NBC U West Coast topper Marc Graboff. While his position within the company is considered safe, his duties could be changing. Graboff already has a portfolio much broader than the network, with oversight of NBC Universal’s syndie biz and its cable business affairs.
At 36, Silverman is in some ways a younger version of Zucker — a New Yorker with a famously short attention span whose relationship with Hollywood has been untraditional.
Giving so much power to Silverman is an unexpected and potentially risky move, with many in Hollywood already fretting that it could backfire. Some argue that NBC needs to focus on finding new hits, not talking up new paradigms.
Word of Zucker’s flirtation with Silverman began leaking out Thursday afternoon and reached a fever pitch Friday morning, when an anonymous email tipster began spreading the word to outlets such as Daily Variety.
One person who received an email was Reilly, who at the time hadn’t been officially told that Zucker and Silverman were talking. While technically Zucker wasn’t talking to Silverman about replacing Reilly, the fact that Zucker was looking to bring in yet another exec above him seemed to be the final straw for Reilly.
Reilly has lived with rumors about his fate from almost the moment he got to the network. Nevertheless, the former FX boss has had as good a development track record as most of his rivals, launching a mix of hits (“Heroes,” “My Name Is Earl,” “The Office” and “Deal or No Deal”) and promising critically acclaimed newcomers (“30 Rock,” “Friday Night Lights”) during his three years as entertainment prexy.
He no doubt thought the deal he inked in March would allow him to finally take control of the net, but the Silverman scenario apparently convinced him it was time to go.
Within 24 hours, Reilly was talking to his boss, Graboff, about leaving NBC. Nobody at the network stood in his way, making his departure a mutually agreed upon exit.
Reilly will get a generous financial payout from NBC since he still has nearly three years left on his deal. Exit package is expected to be several million dollars, though not as rich as that secured by Lloyd Braun after he was fired from ABC shortly after inking a new five-year pact.
One of Reilly’s chief rivals — ABC Entertainment prexy Steve McPherson — said NBC will be worse off without Reilly.
“Kevin brought class and quality back to NBC (and) he had the balls to back the stuff he believed in,” said McPherson, who’s been friends with Reilly for years. “He delivered about a hit every year, and I don’t know what more you can ask of an entertainment president.”
Despite having had success of his own, “I’m envious of Kevin’s track record,” McPherson added. The ABC exec also hinted that NBC brass never backed Reilly as fully as it should have.
“I don’t think Kevin ever got the respect, the recognition or the support he deserved and needed to do that job,” McPherson said.
Pariah topper Gavin Polone said he wasn’t surprised by Zucker’s actions, but that Reilly had done a good job.
“I think Kevin deserves more credit and is caught in a difficult situation, where the corporation is under siege from analysts about the stock price and needs to improve its performance or face louder calls for a divestiture of NBCUniversal,” Polone said. “Kevin has put on three hit shows (“My Name is Earl,” “The Office” and “Heroes”) in the last three years, which is more than anyone else has done.”
There’s already buzz about what Reilly’s next gig could be, with much speculation centering on HBO as a future home. A person familiar with the situation, however, said such a move — if it happens — wouldn’t take place immediately. Pay cabler is still grappling with the sudden departure of topper Chris Albrecht.
One open question is whether Reilly’s post as head of entertainment will be immediately filled and, if so, by whom. That decision will likely fall to Silverman.
Still up in the air is the fate of Pope. Long considered an heir apparent to Reilly, she had been on track to take charge of a combined network-studio development team. Now, there’s a very real chance she could end up leaving NBC U, people with knowledge of the matter said.
Pope’s future became cloudy Wednesday, when she and Reilly both discovered that Zucker had opted to go against what had been the conventional wisdom inside NBC about the fate of the studio.
It had been understood for months that the Peacock was planning to fold the studio into its network operations, with studio chief Angela Bromstad taking on another role inside NBC U. (Bromstad has been mentioned as a candidate to launch an NBC international production arm, a gig that could have her relocating to London.)
Under this plan, Pope would have been in charge of day-to-day activities developing on the studio side, with Reilly focused on the net. Pope had made it clear that she wanted to get out of her network gig and return to working at the studio.
According to people familiar with the circumstances, Pope was highly disturbed by the change in plans, since she had been under the impression that she would be leaving her network gig and be allowed to focus on what she enjoyed most, namely, developing shows on the studio side.
Pope likely did not know that Zucker was secretly talking to Silverman about coming aboard, a move that still might have allowed Pope to take on more responsibility on the studio side.
Zucker and Pope previously have been close, leading some insiders to suggest the two will patch things up. It’s unclear, however, if Zucker still wants to keep Pope aboard.
If he does, Silverman will no doubt also have a say in whether she remains at the company and in what position. Much will depend on the final shape of Silverman’s job at NBC and how he decides to structure his development team.
Silverman isn’t known as a micromanager, or indeed as a manager at all. So it’s possible he’ll want to keep some stability in the NBC development ranks. Pope, after all, is widely credited as the key exec responsible for helping Tim Kring launch his hit “Heroes.”
But Silverman also may want to bring over some of his own exec team (although in the short term, they may have their hands full running Reveille’s existing skeins).
Some would argue that Silverman could use someone with Pope’s development chops to help guide him through the development process. But Silverman, rightly or wrongly, may feel he doesn’t need such assistance. Silverman — never shy about talking up the successes of his Reveille shingle — may argue he’s got a pretty good track record of picking winners.
“We have the best pilot-to-series ratio in television history,” Silverman told the Ne
w York Times in September. “It’s spin, I know, but I’m all about pushing Ben right now.”
Silverman has indeed put together a number of success stories at Reveille, in comedy (“The Office”), dramedy (“Ugly Betty”), drama (“The Tudors”) and reality (“The Biggest Loser,” “Nashville Star”).
“Forever, the industry has massively underestimated (Silverman’s) creative abilities,” said Michael Davies, exec producer of “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” and head of Gotham-based Embassy Row. “Talent — writers, actors, producers, execs — like him and trust him. He’s just Hollywood enough, just New York enough and just London and Cannes enough at the perfect time in a massively changing TV business.”
Before he launched his own company, Silverman carved a name for himself working at William Morris in London, where he was one of the early pioneers of importing overseas formats to the U.S. He brought his global networking skills to the table when he formed Reveille, where he snatched up the rights to “The Office” and “Ugly Betty.”
Silverman also has an eye for picking partners and talent. It was his idea to attach Greg Daniels to “The Office,” and he hooked up with Salma Hayek on “Betty” (which was first developed as a half-hour at NBC).
Original “Office” creator Ricky Gervais had nothing but praise for Silverman in that same New York Times profile of the producer that ran last fall.
“I’d never heard of Ben Silverman before he tracked me down. His energy and knowledge about ‘The Office’ impressed me,” Gervais told the Times. Silverman also has been at the forefront of a trend of major importance to Zucker: product integration. “The Office,” in particular, has found a way to make ads for Chili’s and Staples seem unobtrusive. Look for more such advertiser-friendly deals under Silverman’s watch.
Some of Silverman’s confidantes are said to have advised him against taking an NBC gig, noting that running a company offers more creative freedom — and much more money. Some wonder if Silverman could end up like Michael Ovitz at Disney: a superstar in the outside world who ends up feeling confined by the shackles of a major corporation. Others note that Silverman doesn’t have any experience running a company as big as NBC’s West Coast operations.
“I don’t know if he understands what he’s getting himself into,” said one observer, noting NBC parent company GE’s strict adherence to “process.”
But, like Reilly and Garth Ancier before him, the lure of a programming-centric gig at the Peacock may be too much for Silverman to resist. One of Silverman’s earliest mentors (and bosses) was the late Brandon Tartikoff, and the chance to follow in Tartikoff’s footsteps seems to have an almost narcotic-like appeal for Hollywood execs.
“Ben’s a dreamer, a showman,” said one person familiar with Silverman’s rep. “He’s the kind of person you want in these jobs.”
Some observers, however, point out that today’s NBC is very different from the one managed by Tartikoff. “That NBC doesn’t exist anymore,” one industry exec said.