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How Late Exec Fred Silverman Helped Shape Modern Television

Fred Silverman never stopped pitching.

He never stopped thinking about television and analyzing the strengths and weaknesses of the networks he once ran, as well as the dozens of outlets that came to prominence after his storied run as a top executive ended in the early 1980s.

Silverman, a seminal figure in TV who died Jan. 30 at 82, knew that the first line of his obituary would identify him as the only person — so far — to have served as head of programming for ABC, CBS and NBC.

But after scaling the heights, he made a successful shift into producing at a time when that path was not as nearly common as it is today for former senior executives. His success in the 1980s and ’90s as a producer of such series as “Matlock” and “In the Heat of the Night,” and later “Diagnosis Murder,” was a testament to his instincts and experience, his drive and his unbridled love of television. He was still pitching new shows as recently as a few months ago, industry executives say.

“He very much shaped modern TV,” says CBS Entertainment president Kelly Kahl, who had a long friendship with Silverman. “He was a huge force in that transitional period when TV changed from what it had been in the 1950s and ’60s.”

Warren Littlefield, who moved into the seat Silverman once held at NBC and also made a successful shift into producing, says Silverman’s command of the industry was impressive. “That’s why Fred was so great at selling,” Littlefield says. “Nobody had a better analysis of the reason why you need to buy this show. He would come in with an analysis of our strengths and weaknesses and the competition’s strengths and weaknesses. And then he’d say, ‘That’s why you need to play in this world.’ Most of the time he was dead on.”

The risky “rural purge” gamble Silverman took in his first year after being promoted to head of programming at CBS in 1970 remains a touchstone for execs who followed. Silverman convinced the network to drop a slate of hugely successful sitcoms — “Gomer Pyle, USMC,” “Green Acres” and “Petticoat Junction,” among them — to make way for the earthier and edgier laughs of groundbreaking series including “All in the Family” and “The Mary Tyler Moore Show.” Silverman knew CBS would suffer in the long run if it relied too much on shows that appealed largely to older and rural viewers.

Norman Lear, the legendary producer of “All in the Family” and other shows, puts it simply in paying tribute to the man who went out on a limb to bring Archie Bunker into America’s living rooms. “There would be no ‘All in the Family’ or ‘Maude’ without Fred Silverman,” Lear states. “Bless his every memory.”

Silverman was never short on confidence, but he was not a braggart about his achievements. Nor did he live in the past. His eye was always on the next show, or the next network stunt that might make some noise. He was full of ideas for friends and associates at the major networks and studios.

“Despite being somebody who had done so much, he’d always talk with you on equal terms as a fan of TV,” Kahl recalls. “He didn’t speak down to you. He was just really happy to share his love of TV with somebody who appreciated TV as much as he did. I always felt refreshed after talking with him. He so clearly loved the business.”

Littlefield called Silverman an “unsung hero” as a producer. “Matlock,” which starred Andy Griffith as a folksy and brilliant defense attorney, ran for nine seasons, starting on NBC in 1986. The show was bought in the room by then-NBC Entertainment chief Brandon Tartikoff, in part because it was hard to say no to Silverman given his enthusiasm for the concept, Littlefield recalls.

Silverman had a rocky tenure at NBC from 1978 to mid-1981. But he made an indelible contribution by taking a chance on Tartikoff, then a young executive out of Chicago, to help lead the charge in programming at the network. Silverman also gave the greenlight for NBC to experiment with a new kind of cop show, “Hill Street Blues,” which indisputably broadened the horizons of television drama.

He remained invested in the fortunes of his network alma maters. He’d been gone from NBC for about four years when he came in to pitch Tartikoff and Littlefield the idea for “Matlock.” When the group entered the same conference room where Silverman had once presided over meetings as NBC president, he made a beeline for the same head-table chair he’d sat in as boss. “He was back in the room, telling us what he wanted us to do,” Littlefield recalls.

Kahl would occasionally get an email or note from Silverman if CBS notched a big ratings win or some other victory. He was never mean-spirited about the competition among the major networks, but he kept tabs on everything. “He was always happy when TV succeeded,” Kahl says.

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