Summer rerun: Silverman and NBC

Network gets a blast from the past

With NBC bringing up the rear in the ratings, a plaintive cry went out for a young showbiz maverick named Silverman to help a singed Peacock network re-store its feathers.

Of course, that would be Fred Silverman, back in 1978.

More than a few people with streaks of gray in their beards have experienced an eerie sense of déjà vu lately, reading about producer Ben Silverman’s selec-tion to rouse NBC from its ratings slumber. Indeed, even the headlines sound like reruns, with recent entries like “Silverman Assembles Team” and “NBC Shakes Things Up” paralleling Variety’s “Silverman OK’s NBC-TV Team” and “NBC Program Shakeup Opens Silverman Era” from the summer of ‘78.

If the past is prologue, examining Fred Silverman’s leap to NBC — both in its similarities and differences to circumstances facing the current (no relation) version — is highly instructive. For starters, it’s a reminder that when it comes to executive rescue missions — the equivalent of booting the coach to jolt a sports team out of its losing ways — the more things change, the more they tend to stay the same.

As a keen observer of the programming game, Fred Silverman had noticed the headlines too and already been strolling down memory lane, comparing the “awful schedule” he inherited then to NBC now.

“This is when they were in Universal’s back pocket,” Silverman mused of NBC’s ‘78 sked — a bit ironic, given that those two entities now jointly reside under the same corporate umbrella.

Both Silvermans began in June and quickly restructured a fall lineup unveiled to advertisers not long before. Each faced questions of competing against pro-grams with which they were previously involved — in Fred’s case, more powerful CBS and ABC rosters he assembled while running those networks.

In many respects, however, the situation is different. After leaving ABC, Silverman was forced to spend over four months sidelined, waiting out the terms of his contract. He also found a decimated NBC schedule that he promptly tore up — benching a comedy about stewardesses and putting on a real-life medical show (followed later by “Real People”) that marked nascent steps within the reality-TV genre, albeit before it had earned that 21st-century designation.

“They’re in better shape than we were,” Silverman said in appraising the current NBC lineup, citing “Heroes” and “The Office” as the kind of promising an-chors, coupled with primetime football, which could keep the network highly competitive during the fourth quarter. “It isn’t like the cupboard is bare there.”

As for NBC’s recent moves, Silverman likes what he sees, applauding the lineup changes and particularly reaching out to veteran producer Norman Lear to supervise a new pilot. “Symbolically, it’s terrific,” he said. “They should be doing that with more people who are seniors in the business.”

Ultimately, though, entertainment presidents are subject to forces beyond their control. At the first NBC affiliate meeting following Silverman’s arrival in ‘78, Edgar Griffiths — president of then-NBC owner RCA — was interrupted by applause just once: When he vowed to spend “whatever is necessary” to get back on top and that Silverman would have “all the time in the world he needs to do the job.”

Griffiths couldn’t fulfill that pledge. He was forced out in 1981, and Silverman left months later after three frustrating years. NBC’s turnaround under Grant Tinker and Brandon Tartikoff soon followed.

Then again, that transition underscores a notable history of execs mounting comebacks from the spoils left behind by predecessors — “the fruits of the fired,” as Silverman put it, suggesting that shake-ups occasionally yield dividends simply by altering the internal tone and employees’ mind-set.

“It’s very important you don’t walk around feeling like losers,” he said.

Whatever the decade — or the Silverman — that’s pretty sound advice.

The More Things Change, Part 2:
While researching this piece, I stumbled across a June 1978 column by then-Variety TV editor Dave Kaufman that began as follows:

“Brilliant. Dazzling. Innovative. Daring. Breakthrough. Imaginative. Unique.

“Those are among the words to be avoided in appraisal of the three TV networks’ schedule for next season. What the webs have come up with after months of diligent preparation are conservative skeds carefully calculated not to make waves.”

Omigod, now I’m the one trapped in a rerun.

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