Ben Silverman’s ears are burning.
In a town known for its schadenfreude, a favorite topic of conversation is the status — and the future — of the NBC Entertainment and Universal Media Studios co-chairman and his top lieutenant, NBC Entertainment exec veep Teri Weinberg.
“There are moments where I wonder to myself: How did I get in this position where people get to lie about you?” Silverman tells Variety. “I’ve been at restaurants where I hear people talking about me two tables over.”
There has been plenty of grist for the mill. Network and studio execs, agents and producers have buzzed all summer about reports of problems, reshoots and firings on the set of the Web’s top fall hopefuls, comedy “Kath and Kim” and drama “My Own Worst Enemy.”
NBC is in the ratings basement and craves new hits but, just weeks before the fall season starts, few have yet seen the frosh shows.
Industryites kept close tabs on Silverman’s time away from NBC’s Burbank offices — he spent much of August overseas at the Beijing Olympics — and clucked about his attempts to run a network, especially a fourth-place network, from afar. And then there are the persistent reports of his rock-star lifestyle and taste for the high life, coupled with his self-confident air.
On some level, Silverman seems to have become a lightning rod for people — agents, writers, producers — and their frustrations with the new world order for TV in the wake of the writers strike. There’s a sense that some people love to hate him because he didn’t claw his way up to the top exec ranks in the traditional pay-your-dues manner, and he hasn’t tackled the job of running a network the way his predecessors did.
Silverman makes no apologies for the way he’s handled his 15 months in office. He was brought in by NBC U CEO Jeff Zucker with a mandate to shake up the status quo.
“In general, the system has been very successful to live and breathe in its own bubble,” Silverman says. “But the reality is there’s so much going on outside our bubble.”
Zucker has already begun conversations with Silverman — who signed a two-year deal with the Peacock in 2007 — about his future at the network, but those talks are still in very early stages.
However even if NBC pursues a contract renewal, industry folk question whether Silverman will agree to reup beyond next summer, when his pact expires.
The exec, after all, has already landed a big payday with the sale earlier this year of his hitmaking shingle Reveille — home of “The Office” and “Ugly Betty,” among others — to Elisabeth Murdoch’s Shine Group that could be worth as much as $200 million.
Insiders say Silverman isn’t itching to reup at the network yet, preferring to keep his options open. The exec, who made his mark as a WMA TV agent before going out on his own with Reveille in 2002, is said to be frequently presented with job proposals, from launching an ad agency to building a studio. So why stick around the network pressure cooker?
It’s not exactly the best of times at NBC Entertainment, which ended last season once again in fourth place, a decade after it ruled primetime thanks to hits like “Friends,” “Seinfeld” and “ER.”
These days, when Zucker rattles off the state of NBC Universal’s properties, the Peacock’s primetime performance isn’t exactly the first thing he mentions.
Or the third. Or the fifth. Or even the 10th.
USA Network is huge. Bravo’s up. Oxygen’s growing. NBC News is in the best shape it’s been in the long time. NBC Sports is coming off an amazing Olympics perf. MSNBC is nipping at CNN’s heels. Universal’s “Mamma Mia!” is one of the year’s biggest success stories. Hulu’s got game on the Internet side.
Then there’s NBC Entertainment.
New network toppers generally get a year before the demands to deliver results kick in. But it hasn’t been much of a honeymoon for Silverman, who was paired with longtime Peacock business chief Marc Graboff last year in a messy transition that cut loose former entertainment prexy Kevin Reilly. (He wound up in the same role at Fox.)
Silverman immediately faced questions over conflicts of interest over his financial interest in Reveille, which supplied programming for a fair amount of real estate that he had control over. Zucker had final say over Peacock decisions pertaining to Reveille, but the issue persisted until the company was sold — and still has many observers scratching their heads.
Then came the Writers Guild of America strike, which collapsed the 2007-08 TV season and forced the nets to streamline development. NBC opted to pick up a number of new series sans pilots, a move heavily criticized by rival nets.
Without pilots, Peacock entries including “My Own Worst Enemy,” “Kath and Kim,” “Crusoe” and “Kings” have all had to retool along the way. And adding an air of mystery to what’s going on with fall, the network hasn’t yet screened final cuts of the series’ first episodes for TV critics.
Many complain that Silverman is focusing on big-picture stuff and isn’t paying attention to the finer points of program development. True or not, there’s a perception that Silverman doesn’t spend much time with scripts.
“Ben is a smart guy. He was smart when he was an agent to go overseas and find all those shows that he could bring back here,” says a top tenpercenter who knows Silverman well. “And he could’ve kept on with (agenting), making $1 million-$2 million a year, but he said ‘I’m going to launch my own company and own these formats.’ He’s a very good entrepreneur. He is not (as good as) an executive.”
As for Weinberg, industry wags say she’s been given too much of the oversight that Silverman should have. Before NBC, Weinberg worked shoulder-to-shoulder with Silverman at Reveille as a producer on “The Office,” “Ugly Betty” and other shows, but she had no exec experience before she was thrust into the role of development chief at a network that sorely needs new hits.
The negative buzz on Silverman and Weinberg could turn sunny in an instant should one of the new shows spark and drive NBC to a ratings comeback. (Or, at the very least, not lose any more Nielsen ground.)
But if not, will Silverman and Weinberg still be around next year to give things another try?
Zucker has said that while Silverman has made some mistakes along the way, he’s accomplished what he was brought in to do: Start blowing up the way the networks program primetime. Silverman’s financial mandates have also been met: The network and studio have exceeded their quarter by quarter financial targets, the company says.
“We have done extremely well for the bottom line of NBC Universal and GE, and I’m really proud of that,” Silverman says. “It’s tangible. It is what it is — there’s no interpretation.”
Responding to charges that he hasn’t been focused on the job, Silverman says his mandate has been to bring in international partners and strike marketing alliances — and that, he says, requires leaving his Universal City office.
“I was hired to come in and help transform our model,” Silverman says. “Day to day I’m maybe 80% revenue-oriented and business-oriented. I’m working with ad sales. Connecting with broadcast partners and connecting with advertiser clients globally. … The reality is we’ve got to collectively be thinking about how we put shows together and get them financed, and people are resisting that.”
At NBC, Silverman has introduced international co-productions to the mix, starting with the upcoming “Crusoe.”
Because it’s shot overseas, “Crusoe” costs less than half of an average hourlong drama. And with U.K. producer Power funding more than 75% of the show, it’s a virtually risk-free investment for NBC.
“Instead of a 3 rating, we can survive with a 1.2 rating,” Silverman says. His detractors scoff that focusing on costs over quality will only drive viewers away from the network in the long run. (In fairness, no one has seen the finished product on “Crusoe” yet.)
Peacock insiders credit Silverman’s relationships with the advertising community — built up over his years as an agent and then at Reveille — for bringing dollars to the net that might otherwise have gone elsewhere.
With “My Own Worst Enemy,” the net negotiated a deal with automaker GM before a lick of film was shot — bringing the automaker into the show from the start. “Enemy’s” launch was even scheduled in mid-October to be timed to one of GM’s promotions.
Meanwhile, as NBC’s (and all of broadcast TV’s) ratings remain in the dumps — and a recovery looks less and less likely — Zucker and Silverman are playing up the value of their programming on multiple platforms.
“The Office,” the remake of the Brit hit that Silverman produced through Reveille prior to joining NBC, isn’t just a Peacock show — it’s a content offering online via Hulu and iTunes, and a hot homevid property, and as well as a player in syndication and the international market.
“The value of quality programming is more and more important off the network,” Silverman says. “As much as we still need to deliver big audiences for our marketing partners, it’s almost as important to give them the specific audiences they need for the shows themselves to be good enough to sell into multiple markets around the world.
At NBC, “We’ve got to have patience and realize that although the absolute ratings may not be high, the value of a show with passionate audiences can be monetized across multiple platforms,” he adds.
Hence NBC U’s decision to keep the critically lauded but low-rated drama “Friday Night Lights” alive via a programming deal with DirecTV.
As for criticism of Weinberg and him, Silverman says his No. 2 hasn’t been given enough recognition for the talent roster they’ve accumulated, both at Reveille and NBC. Weinberg has been accused by some of micromanaging, acting as if she were still a producer and not the network steward.
“She’s not getting enough credit for what we brought into NBC — Amy Poehler, Molly Shannon, Ian McShane, Christian Slater, Selma Blair,” he says.
“I love that I get knocked for being not hands-on enough, and she’s getting knocked for being too hands-on,” Silverman says. “She’s a perfectionist and wants the product to be the best it can be. She challenges our program suppliers to do that and I’m glad she does. … She’s done a great job based on everything I’ve seen.”
Silverman won’t comment on his plans just yet, including whether they include NBC.
“I like challenges, I like those kind of opportunities and I like being inside and accessing and learning all the time from this massive organization, which does so many things,” he says.
But even if Silverman hasn’t figured out his future, over the next few months Hollywood will surely be speculating on his plans.
Cynthia Littleton contributed to this report.