NBC primes for better times

New chief Silverman looks for hits

If Jeff Zucker was looking for someone to make some noise at NBC, Ben Silverman might’ve been the perfect choice.

Network TV’s newest (and youngest) topper also is the first to come from the world of alternative television. Sure, he won an Emmy for “The Office,” but Silverman — a former agent at William Morris — made his name packaging hits such as “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” and “The Biggest Loser.”

As such, Silverman understands how to come up with big, bold ideas that can quickly capture eyeballs, something the fourth-place Peacock desperately needs to do.

It’s a big job, and Silverman is no doubt getting plenty of advice on how to best boost NBC’s numbers. But some agents, producers and execs at other networks have a few suggestions he should keep in mind.

Don’t be burdened by the ghost of Brandon Tartikoff. In interviews with the press, as well as a first-day pep talk with staffers, Silverman invoked the late NBC programmer’s legacy as a guiding force in his efforts to rebuild the Peacock. He’s not the first NBC newbie to do so.

One NBC vet says, “I’ve been through four welcome-the-new-guy presentations where they talked about Brandon.”

It takes nothing away from Tartikoff’s success at NBC to suggest that maybe execs ought to stop trying to be the next Brandon.

“He loved the business, and NBC had unprecedented success under him, but it was a different era,” one observer notes. “The average household had a dozen channels. The networks ruled.”

A better template might be the Don Ohlmeyer/Warren Littlefield regime of the 1990s. For much of the decade, that team kept NBC in first with a populist mix of programming that pleased both critics and audiences.

Go crazy on comedy. This should be easy for the man who brought “The Office” and “Ugly Betty” to American shores. But Silverman is entering the network world at a time when most webheads are scared silly when it comes to sitcoms, thanks to the genre’s unusually high failure rate in recent years.

The Peacock brass developed seven new comedies — including two from Silverman’s Reveille banner — but didn’t put any of them on the fall sked.

Despite that fact, NBC has actually had the most success with laffers in recent years, launching hits “My Name Is Earl” and “The Office” as well as the acclaimed “30 Rock.” In the 1980s, when Silverman was a self-described latchkey kid enamored of TV, network execs similarly declared the sitcom a dead format — until “The Cosby Show” came along.

Marc Graboff can be a great ally. While the media spotlight has rightly focused on Silverman, Zucker also upped his former West Coast chief to serve alongside Silverman as co-chairman of NBC Entertainment and NBC Universal TV Studio.

Graboff is a quiet, nonshowy exec with a strong business background. He made it clear he’ll cede day-to-day decisionmaking on creative affairs to Silverman.

While Silverman the entrepreneur is accustomed to acting on his own, he’d be wise to keep Graboff onboard with all major decisions. Graboff could be particularly valuable in helping Silverman navigate the political landmines strewn all over NBC and parent company GE.

This is a great chance for NBC to rethink its production structure. For the first 18 months or so of Kevin Reilly’s tenure, the reality TV department didn’t even report to him, while marketing never came under his official domain.

Silverman already has a broader mandate than Reilly, which encompasses control of all things entertainment at NBC. He’s also got a personal bond with Zucker that Reilly never had.

Silverman needs to have the sort of broad authority that ABC’s Steve McPherson possesses. Whether it’s marketing or program development, Silverman needs to be able to make the call.

And there is one final piece of advice: Don’t listen to advice. After all, everybody has an opinion. For example, some felt deposed NBC Entertainment prexy Reilly ran into trouble for championing shows that felt too ritzy (“Friday Night Lights”) or too dark (“The Black Donnellys”).

Silverman will be under pressure to ditch the niche and go for more meat-and-potatoes fare. Some industry observers think that’s not such a bad idea.

“We’re in the business of getting as many people to watch our shows as possible,” one industry wag says. “It’s arrogant to think otherwise.”

But there’s another Hollywood camp that argues the quality-programming brand is one NBC should maintain at all costs.

“The audience has shown an ability to go many places, and just because something’s dark doesn’t mean it’s marginal,” says one producer. “Kevin’s legacy will be recapturing the mantle of quality at NBC. Ben should take that and build on it.”

All well, and good. But, as William Goldman said about the film business, “Nobody knows anything.” So don’t take any advice too seriously. Even this story.

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