Is Silverman of NBC TV's Satan or Superman

Posted: August 26, 2007

BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. - Is this the face of the future of television?

Long, thin, well-tanned, killer dimples, prominent schnoz, brown eyes so dark they're almost black, stylishly unkempt hair of matching color, wide smile with more teeth than Julia Roberts. And those eyebrows, each with a little point, like horns.

Many believe Ben Silverman, new NBC Entertainment cochairman, is the devil, a showbiz slickster, who folds advertising and Internet links into TV series and has had his hand on scads of culture killers like Big Brother, The Biggest Loser, and MTV's Date My Mom. He admits he used Fear Factor to "build a relationship" with his new boss.

Among his first moves at NBC: resurrecting Donald Trump's The Apprentice, and landing rights to the Colombian telenovela Sin tetas no hay paradiso. It's the tale of a gal who thinks a boob job will be the key to her success, and though you'll usually see it translated "Without Breasts There Is No Paradise," the real English equivalent of "tetas" is just what it sounds like.

But in September, Silverman will also be the first producer in 34 years sitting at the Emmys with two nominations for best comedy, The Office and Ugly Betty. The last one was Hollywood legend Norman Lear (All in the Famliy and Maude), whom Silverman has just signed to create a show for NBC.

The man - Hollywood blogs and trades call him "rock star" and "party boy" - moves too fast to put in a box. He will be controversial, and in stunning contrast to almost every network boss in history, possibly fun, until it's proven that he knows more about making shows than getting them into a network lineup, or, and this is not entirely impossible, until he gets bored after so many years of NBC's being No. 1 in prime time

Which it certainly isn't now. It has been last among the big networks for three years. The man who hired Silverman, Jeff Zucker, helped get it there, and the man whom Silverman replaced, Kevin Reilly, affable, highly respected, buyer of Heroes, My Name Is Earl, and Silverman's Office, was given a wrenching hook because Zucker was worried the rock star might join another band.

Silverman, who turned 37 on Aug. 15, was born to be a TV executive. Brought up on New York's Upper West Side, he describes his father in an interview as "an avant-garde composer of chamber music." His mother went into TV "because chamber music wasn't going to pay for my college."

"She started in New Jersey in the '70s at USA, Lifetime, then BBC, where I learned a lot about the foreign market," Silverman says. "I would go to the satellite in Jersey and fool around. My father's world was Joseph Papp, Tommy Tune. I had this incredible range of artistic voices, and I had wrestling on USA. It was the perfect storm of those two worlds."

The boy seemed predisposed to follow money more than art. He interned summers at Warner Bros. while attending Tufts University, and worked in the company's Paris office during his junior year abroad.

After graduating magna cum laude in 1992 with a degree in history, he said, "I drove across country in the worst, beat-up, no-air-conditioning, clutch-broken car, using the 21/2 grand that I was given collectively from every relative for graduating, arrived in L.A. and started my interview process."

He landed a menial job in the international department of CBS, and then, for 10 seconds, worked for NBC programming legend Brandon Tartikoff (The Cosby Show, Cheers, Hill Street Blues), his hero, he tells one and all, again and again, at New World Entertainment.

Eventually he went abroad and wound up heading the William Morris Agency in London, where he helped to package the international hits Who Wants to Be a Millionaire and Survivor, and a few duds, too, for American TV.

In 2002, he founded Reveille Productions, best known as an adapter of foreign shows and an innovator in ad-sponsored production.

In a profile, the trade magazine Advertising Age said, "What makes him different from his predecessors is his experience catering to advertisers - and the fact that he's always seemed to be the rare entertainment exec who actually enjoys spending time on Madison Avenue."

In Hollywood, the long knives were unsheathed immediately against the brash whippersnapper. People question the specifics of his deal, which leaves him still affiliated with Reveille. ABC Entertainment president Steve McPherson, the dour antithesis of Silverman's back-slapping persona, called him "either clueless or stupid" and admonished him to "be a man" and accept responsibility for Reilly's departure.

All over town, they say Silverman's no artist, just a reality-show opportunist.

"I would like to show them The Office, Ugly Betty and The Tudors," he responds, "my three shows of the past year, and I'd ask them to hold those three shows up against any shows on air."

In hiring Silverman, Zucker also named longtime NBC fiscal guru Marc Graboff as cochair. That proves the rock star's no money man, chant the naysayers.

Baloney, he answers. "I think people should look at my track record at running a big independent business and know that we were highly profitable."

"I think people look for the opportunity to find cracks," he says with a gentle laugh.

"But I think they should look at what I've done to hasten the transformation of this industry, what I've done with advertisers, what I've done in the digital space. I'm absolutely a market leader in defining the business paradigms . . . so I think it's totally unfair and inaccurate, but fine."

He knows everyone. Former Grey's Anatomy pariah Isaiah Washington told Entertainment Weekly that he got signed to NBC's new Bionic Woman through a connection with his good friend, Ghanaian designer Ozwald Boateng. Silverman, who produced the reality show House of Boateng for Sundance, sported a Boateng-designed shirt - no visible buttons - for his introduction to the nation's TV critics at their summer gathering here last month. "I wear the brand," he quipped. "I have Peacock cufflinks."

Silverman and Washington actually met, the actor said, at a party at Mr. Chow, the only Beverly Hills restaurant that has been trendy for 30 years. Silverman and pals were celebrating his new job with champagne and a cake with icing that depicted the executive's head pasted onto the NBC Peacock with talons strangling the other networks.

Silverman doesn't hesitate when asked what most qualifies him to be NBC boss: "I am the audience. I love television. I love entertainment. I am of the demo that is currently most coveted, and I feel I am programming to me and a million of my peers and their parents and their kids. . . .

"I have a visceral passion for television, and confidence. I've had a number of crazy ideas work, so it makes you believe that you can try anything."

Tetas, Trump and The Tudors. Hang on to your seats, TV viewers.


To comment on this article, go to: http://go.philly.com/askstorm. Contact television critic Jonathan Storm privately at 215-854-5618 or jstorm@phillynews.com. Read his recent work at http://go.philly.

com/jonathanstorm.

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