The departure of outsized NBC chief Ben Silverman is the third time that the producer will team up with IAC’s Diller.
By Richard Siklos, Editor at large
Ben Silverman’s departure from NBC this morning comes as no huge surprise: he was an out-of-the-box choice to head programming at major broadcast network and his two-year-plus tenure was marked by lots of attention on Silverman’s outsized persona but little yet in terms of new prime time hits for the long-struggling Peacock Network. (For more on Silverman see our story,
It also makes perfect sense that Silverman’s exit involves the creation of a new and as yet unnamed production company in partnership with IAC Interactive Corp., (IACI) the Internet company led by mogul Barry Diller. This will actually be the third time that Silverman and Diller have teamed up to produce ventures aimed at melding conventional TV advertising, programming and Web—and both other times yielded the men handsome returns.
“Barry stirs the pot and he sees the future,” Silverman said in an interview today.
The history here is that Diller backed Silverman with $10 million in the creation of his production company, Reveille, back in 2002. Silverman had made a name for himself at the William Morris Agency in London for importing foreign show concepts like Who Wants to Be a Millionaire for the U.S. audience and re-selling formats around the world.
And when Silverman set up a second fund at Reveille before joining NBC in 2007, Diller backed him again with another $15 million (quietly—you find no mention of these investments in the financial statements of IAC, better known for Web sites like Match.com and Citysearch.). Indeed, Diller and Silverman were talking about a third and larger Reveille fund when Silverman decided to take the NBC job in 2007, a move that led to him selling Reveille a year or so later to Elisabeth Murdoch’s Shine Group for some $120 million. (NBC is part of NBC Universal, a joint venture of GE (ge) and France’s Vivendi (VIVDY).
The size of the new venture, nor its name, have not been disclosed. One thing that is clear is that Silverman may be more comfortable and adroit as a seller rather than a buyer of programming–NBC said it could also be a backer or partner of Silverman’s new venture, and it seems likely that both Shine and Sony (who also looked at backing the old Reveille) would look at being involved.
At Reveille, Silverman made a name with such shows as ABC’s Ugly Betty (originally a Columbian telenovela) and NBC’s The Office (derived from the British sitcom hit.). A frenetic character, Silverman had also developed and sold the original show The Tudors to Showtime and done deals with Microsoft. But where Silverman and Reveille really made a name was in the packaging of product-placement laden and sometimes shlocky reality fare like The Biggest Loser. And Silverman prides himself on being a “360” media executive who understands not just the creative end but the marketing, technological and international ends of the business at a time when the conventional TV advertising spot is in serious decline.
Silverman/Diller 3.0 will differ from past iterations by focusing on providing the international, digital and advertiser relationships for established producers who Silverman has done business with – a group that might includes Office co-producer Greg Daniels or TV host/producer Ryan Seacrest, a close Silverman pal.
Silverman’s marketer-first approach to network programming may be the future of television but Hollywood traditionalists bristled at his approach at a time when the downturn compounded the network’s challenges: Two of NBC’s dramas last featured Ford and General Motors products as de facto characters in the shows, but both were soon off the air. Silverman’s biggest legacy at NBC, along with that of NBC Universal CEO Jeff Zucker, who hired him, may be the decision to give Jay Leno a weeknight live variety show at 10 p.m. starting this fall, on the argument that such shows are less expensive to air than conventional dramatic series and live TV is less prone to recording and ad-skipping. (Plus Leno may have gone to a rival network).
Silverman said that his tenure at NBC can’t be judged until at least November, when the first true slate of shows he developed at the network will air—and once the dust settles from the Leno move. But he did concede that corporate life in a megalith like General Electric may not have been the perfect fit for him. “I want to build a culture, I don’t want to try and change a culture,” he said. “And that did hit me.”
Both Silverman and Diller were at Fortune Brainstorm TECH last week in Pasadena, albeit on different days. Tellingly, Diller spoke about how the production of video was fundamentally changing and how shows can be produced more cheaply by a new generation of talent that is adept both in front of and behind the camera. For his part, Silverman – who arrived with a retinue of NBC PR folks—was his usual ebullient self, and spoke mainly of relationships that NBC is forming with advertisers rather than specific programs. The pair sewed up their new arrangement after Diller spoke at the conference on Friday. Zucker replaced Silverman with broadcasting veteran Jeff Gaspin, who will oversee not just the network but NBC’s profit-spinning cable channels.