From the moment he took the top programming gig at NBC, Ben Silverman had been plotting his next move.
And from that same moment, Hollywood execs had been waiting for it.
It all came to fruition on Monday, when NBC named Jeff Gaspin chairman of NBC Universal TV Entertainment — and Barry Diller’s IAC announced that it’s partnering with Silverman on a production venture.
In a town that often dishes out shocking exits or unexpected pairings, Monday’s dual announcements from NBC and IAC were neither.
Silverman’s exit from NBC had been speculated from the moment he had arrived in 2007. And his pairing with Diller marks a reunion for the duo.
Diller’s USA Entertainment helped Silverman launch his previous shingle, the wildly successful Reveille, in 2002.
Even the timing of Silverman’s departure to run a production company with IAC made sense: It came on the eve of the Television Critics Assn. press tour, which means the Peacock won’t have to answer awkward questions about Silverman’s fate at NBC.
The news also came as development is getting under way for the 2010-11 TV season — allowing Silverman to start focusing on primetime product at his new company, and giving NBC’s programming team a definitive take on who’s running the network as they start planting their series crop.
The man in charge is Gaspin, who continues his meteoric rise inside NBC Universal.
Long a top ally of NBC U CEO Jeff Zucker, Gaspin now has control of NBC Entertainment and Universal Media Studios. He’ll continue to oversee the NBC portfolio of entertainment cable nets, as well as its Spanish-lingo Telemundo net and NBC’s TV distribution units.
“We’ve brought all the entertainment assets together under one roof,” Zucker said. “That allows for synergies of programming … Broadcast is very important to us, but there’s no question cable is a superior business model. I think there are a lot of things we’ve done very well in cable that I think our network entertainment team can learn from. Jeff can bring some of that.”
Peacock insiders compared Gaspin’s new role to that of Disney’s Anne Sweeney, who oversees that conglom’s network and cable entertainment operations. At News Corp., Tony Vinciquerra was also recently given oversight of both the Fox net and the company’s various entertainment cablers.
As for NBC Entertainment and Universal Media Studios co-chairman Marc Graboff, the well-respected business-oriented exec will remain in his job but will now serve as the sole chairman of the unit, reporting to Gaspin.
NBC Universal execs were knocking down speculation that NBC U Cable Entertainment/Universal Cable Prods. prexy Bonnie Hammer and NBC U Women and Lifestyle Entertainment Nets prexy Lauren Zalaznick might also be given some broadcast oversight; a great deal has already been added to their plates in recent years, Peacock insiders note.
The early morning announcement — timed to break before the morning bell on Wall Street, per IAC’s request — caps a tumultuous two-year tenure at NBC for Silverman.
Industry execs had been speculating for some time that Silverman was looking to get back into producing. Silverman did little to deter such speculation, starting with his short-term deal with NBC and the fact that he wasn’t eager to make a splashy renewal at the net. His initial decision to hold on to Reveille and not sell it outright was also seen as a safety valve — not a bad move given the notoriously short lifespan of most Hollywood exec gigs.
Silverman had already been disengaging himself from day-to-day operations at NBC, particularly after the December shakeup, in which Angela Bromstad was named president of NBC Entertainment and Universal Media Studios and Paul Telegdy took over the alternative programming side.
Since then, Bromstad and Telegdy have been operating with increasing autonomy while Silverman focused on other issues, such as sales and marketing integration. With his contract set to expire, Silverman began looking at his next move.
That’s when rumors began that he might hook up with pal Ryan Seacrest (who hinted at the Silverman/IAC deal via Twitter on Sunday night), and speculation increased across the Pond that he might be in line to take the top job at ITV; a venture with IPG was also rumored. Insiders said Silverman had been approached to take part in several ventures, such as acquiring another company.
“I wanted to create a new culture, not just try and change an existing one,” Silverman said of the decision to launch a new label.
Silverman eventually found a willing partner in Diller; the two started hammering out a deal six to eight weeks ago.
News comes just weeks after NBC quietly alluded that Silverman had signed an agreement to extend his employment at the Peacock, where his two-year deal was set to expire.
Yet NBC execs declined to say for what period they’d extended his deal. One insider said that the two sides were making a clean break — that there was no payout in Silverman’s exit.
Silverman said he would stick around long enough to assist Gaspin in the launch of the fall sked — including the debut of NBC’s bold experiment of running “The Jay Leno Show” Monday-Friday at 10 p.m. Silverman’s departure also comes as the upfront marketplace finally starts to break.
Silverman said he and Zucker agreed that he would see NBC through the process of selling Madison Avenue on the “Leno” proposition.
“We both obviously believe in seeing the fruits of that labor,” Silverman said. “I was here to close initial (advertising) deals with McDonald’s and Group M, and to handle the fall launch — my first without a strike. If I had stayed any longer, it would interrupt Gaspin’s ability to see through his first development cycle.”
The Group M negotiations led to an embarrassing moment last week, when Silverman told attendees at the Brainstorm Tech confab, sponsored by Fortune magazine, that NBC had locked up a deal with Group M. It turns out that wasn’t quite the case — and Peacock PR execs were forced to quickly correct the exec.
Silverman’s tenure was marked by several moments in which his work style and activities outside the office raised eyebrows, even in a town that is known for humoring unusual exec behavior.
Zucker’s 2007 decision to hire Silverman — and force out then-entertainment prexy Kevin Reilly — was controversial from the start. As a result, speculation over Silverman’s fate at the network has been ongoing from almost the moment he set foot at the Peacock.
Not only was Reilly blindsided, but NBC took heat for hiring Silverman while being heavily in business with Silverman’s Reveille shingle.
Silverman divorced himself of Reveille’s day-to-day activities, putting his ownership into a blind trust, but was still in a position to greenlight projects from the shingle. It wasn’t until Elisabeth Murdoch’s Shine purchased Reveille in 2008 for more than $200 million that concerns over Silverman’s potential conflict of interest died down.
Zucker, who has admitted to some Silverman missteps in the past, credited the exec for “helping us rethink the integration of sales and programming. He helped us change that culture and redefined the upfront process for us. His legacy will be the stuff he’s good at — sales, marketing and research. That part of the world.”
Silverman is also credited for keeping critical fave “Friday Night Lights” on the air via a deal with DirecTV. And he took the lead on striking several product integration deals with advertisers such as GM.
But on the flip side, his attempts to put international co-productions on the air have so far been unfruitful, with shows like “Crusoe” failing to deliver. And NBC wasn’t able to cultivate any hits under Silverman’s watch (though the fall 2007 writers strike didn’t help).
Ultimately, Silverman joined NBC when it was in fourth place and leaves a network still stuck in fourth.
Silverman said he’s bullish on the fall season, calling
frosh entries “Community” and “Parenthood” the two best new shows in primetime. He stands by the Leno 10 p.m. strategy: “For the long haul, it’s the right move.”
Silverman is confident his programming decisions will eventually be vindicated: “I think that I will be judged in the future on what I was trying to accomplish in the present.”