Ben Silverman out at NBC Universal

Diller and Silverman forming new company

The outsider is out.

After a rocky two-year tenure, Ben Silverman stepped down Monday as co-chairman of NBC Entertainment and Universal Media Studios to launch a company with Internet mogul Barry Diller.

NBC Universal is consolidating all of its TV entertainment operations under company veteran Jeff Gaspin, who has been named chairman of the combined new division, NBC Universal Television Entertainment. The move gives Gaspin oversight of NBC and UMS, with Marc Graboff -- who ran the units with Silverman -- now reporting to him.

As president and COO of Universal TV Group since 2007, Gaspin managed NBC Uni's best-performing TV unit. UTG is comprised of entertainment cable networks USA, Bravo and SyFy; Hispanic network Telemundo; NBC's owned-and-operated station group; and its first-run and off-net syndication operations.

"This new structure helps us align all of our television entertainment assets under one veteran executive at a time when continued innovation is essential," NBC Uni chief Jeff Zucker said.

Although Zucker had been contemplating a consolidation for some time, the current restructuring was put together in the past couple of months when Zucker started talking with Silverman about his exit. About two weeks ago, Zucker approached Gaspin with the idea of adding NBC and UMS to his portfolio.

Despite the bad shape the broadcast business and particularly NBC is in, Gaspin said he didn't hesitate in accepting the position.

"I'm a huge fan of both businesses," he said. "I recognize the challenges of broadcast, but I've never walked away from a challenge."

 
NBC, which has been trailing in the ratings, finished another season at No. 4 and is seeing CPM declines of about 7% in the upfront market.

Gaspin said his short-term challenges are clear.

"Our focus is simple: launch Jay (Leno), launch the fall season," he said.

As for creative execs put in place in a major shakeup in December, Gaspin said that team will say intact as least through the season launch. Silverman also will stay until September to help with the rollout of the fall schedule.

The network and studio's scripted chief Angela Bromstad and unscripted head Paul Telegdy, who formerly reported to Silverman and Graboff, will report solely to Graboff, whose title will change from co-chairman to chairman of NBC Entertainment and UMS. Gaspin said he will work "more closely" with NBC's Bromstad and Telegdy, as he has done on the cable side. (Gaspin briefly held Telegdy's top NBC reality post in 2001-02 before becoming president of Bravo.)

The executive restructuring at NBC echoes a similar move at ABC in 2004, when the Alphabet was in a ratings slump. Anne Sweeney, who had served as president of ABC Cable Networks Group, also was given the reins of ABC and ABC Studios and now manages all Disney TV properties worldwide.

News Corp. adopted a similar setup in the spring, with Tony Vinciquerra now overseeing the conglom's broadcast and cable entertainment networks. The consolidation trend underscores an increasingly blurred line between broadcast and add-supporting cable as the broadcast model is struggling and cable is still growing.

The news of Silverman's exit from NBC comes a little more than a month after his original two-year contract expired.

NBC Uni never confirmed whether he had signed an extension. Speaking on the phone from Italy, where he is with his family, Silverman said his agreement with Zucker was to "see through this infront/upfront and fall launch and then transition the relationship into a potential investment."

IAC said its new venture with Silverman -- described as "a global platform that connects advertisers, distributors and content creators" -- will have a relationship with NBC Uni through "platform partnerships" and a possible NBC Uni investment in the company.

Silverman said he felt he needed to move quickly with his idea for a new company, which he said "would take over a glaring hole in media advertising marketplace." But he held off until finalizing two major NBC ad deals for next season: an upfront pact with GroupM said to be worth almost $1 billion and a $1 million promotional agreement with McDonald's for "The Jay Leno Show."



Rumors of Silverman's imminent departure have circulated for the past year, as NBC's ratings continued to lag and Silverman's financial fortunes rose after he sold indie production company Reveille to Shine Group for more than $100 million. In June, he was among a shortlist of execs for a vacant CEO spot at U.K-based ITV, but Silverman said he never seriously considered taking the job.

"I'm playing for the Yankees, for the biggest network in the world," he said. "I was flattered, but I wanted to create a new culture, not try to change a culture."

Instead, Silverman reached out to Diller, who in 2002 gave him seed money to start Reveille and took a stake in the fledging company.

Silverman was installed at NBC in June 2007 in a headline-making move by Zucker three months after he had renewed the contact of Silverman's predecessor, Kevin Reilly.

At the time, Zucker said he had to move fast because Silverman was entertaining another offer, said to be from Diller, who was considering increasing his stake in Reveille and possibly tapping Silverman to lead IAC's content efforts. (Shortly after Silverman joined NBC, IAC divested its stake in Reveille for $8.2 million.)

Silverman was an unorthodox choice for the NBC job, with no exec experience and a brash and bohemian personality. But he was expected to bring to NBC the golden touch he showed as a producer of such series as "The Office," "Ugly Betty" and "The Biggest Loser."

Two years later, NBC hasn't launched a bona fide new hit and is where it was before Silverman joined: fourth place among adults 18-49.

The biggest lesson Silverman learned during his stint at the network?

"Never come to work the day your creative community goes on strike," he said, a reference to the WGA strike, which began five months after he took office. "Man, that was crippling. We're still feeling the effects."

Silverman's first development season produced a slew of high-profile ratings disappointments, including "My Own Worst Enemy," "Kath & Kim," "Knight Rider" and "Kings."

Where Silverman excelled was in salesmanship and boosting the bottom line by creative integration of advertisers into series. Fans of "Chuck" have him to thank for saving the ratings-challenged dramedy by striking a sponsorship deal with Subway.

He also was instrumental in keeping critically praised drama "Friday Night Lights" on the air by making a pact with DirecTV.

Additionally, Silverman picked up the advertiser-friendly "The Apprentice" from the cancellation heap and brought it back with solidly rated celebrity editions.

Meanwhile, though the gig at NBC was a lifelong dream -- he has idolized the late NBC topper Brandon Tartikoff since childhood -- Silverman said he can't wait to "go back to creating shows, not managing them."

Looking to the fall, Silverman said he is optimistic about what he calls his first development slate at NBC and thinks the network's long-awaited ratings turnaround might be close, despite skepticism about NBC's decision to strip Leno's talk show five nights a week at 10 p.m.

"I'm really excited about (new comedy) 'Community' and moving 'Weekend Update' to primetime, and I believe that 'Jay' is the right move for the right time," he said.
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