NBC move: must-seize TV
Zucker acted 'with light speed' to land SilvermanThe man who gave NBC "The Office" is getting a big office at NBC — but he nearly ended up elsewhere.
Ben Silverman, whose production company, Reveille, has established an impressive track record in primetime, including "Office" and ABC's "Ugly Betty," on Tuesday was officially installed as co-chairman of NBC Entertainment and NBC Universal Television Studio alongside Marc Graboff, ending days of speculation that also pointed to the departure of NBC Entertainment president Kevin Reilly.
The timing of the hire was unexpected given that Reilly re-upped with the network just three months ago. But in an interview, Silverman and his new boss, NBC Uni president and CEO Jeff Zucker, indicated that they engaged in rapid negotiations during the past 10 days because Silverman was on the verge of accepting a different offer.
"I was being pursued by a bunch of different opportunities," Silverman said, declining to specify which company approached him. "There was one I was engaged by."
Sources disclosed that Silverman had been considering an offer from media mogul Barry Diller of IAC/InteractiveCorp, who was considering substantially increasing his already significant stake in Reveille — perhaps all of it. As part of the deal, Silverman likely would have been handed the reins to companywide content efforts at digitally minded IAC, which did not respond to an inquiry seeking comment Tuesday.
Other sources suggested that NBC Uni wanted to buy Reveille outright but did not get interest from Diller, who is said to have chafed at how he was handled during the NBC-Universal merger in 2003. Diller had a minority interest in Vivendi Universal Entertainment.
But Zucker denied that NBC Uni ever made a play for Reveille, though the company did previously have a stake in the company. "We never looked at buying Reveille," he said. "It was never part of the discussion at any point."
As a result of the Silverman hiring, NBC Uni is extending its current first-look deal with Reveille by two years — a move some sources interpreted as a defensive posture to keep Silverman from handing Reveille over to Diller.
Once the producer notified Zucker of those talks, the exec acted "with light speed," according to Silverman, extending an offer a week later.
"He was being chased by everyone in the industry," Zucker said. "It was move decisively now or lose Ben in the company."
Diller, which initially helped Silverman launch Reveille in 2002 out of now-defunct USA Entertainment, has made noise in recent months about investing hundreds of millions into original programming for online video. His stable includes video hub CollegeHumor.com as well as former Universal programming chief Michael Jackson, whom he hired in January as his president of programming.
"If I ever could think about when there is a better time to start the program business of the Internet, it is literally this second," he said at a Citigroup investor conference in January.
In his new post, Silverman not only effectively replaces Reilly as head of NBC Entertainment but takes on additional responsibilities overseeing creative at NBC Uni TV Studio. He will be teamed with Graboff, formerly president of NBC Uni TV, West Coast, who is expected to focus on business affairs while Silverman concentrates on all aspects of creative, including scheduling, marketing and some digital oversight as well.
"The way that it kind of divides out is fairly instinctual," Graboff said. "We have complementary, overlapping skill sets."
Still to be determined is whether Katherine Pope, executive vp at NBC Entertainment, will follow Reilly out the door. While Zucker and Silverman spoke optimistically in a conference call with reporters about keeping her in-house, sources say Pope made her dissatisfaction with the latest changes at NBC Uni TV known to Zucker and might not stick around.
It is possible that Pope could hang on for the top job at NBC Uni TV Studio, but Graboff noted that it likely won't remain a president-level post as it was under Angela Bromstad. Zucker noted that negotiations are continuing to keep Bromstad at the company in an unspecified post.
While Silverman noted that he will look in-house to fill key posts, sources indicated that he might install his own head of scripted programming at Reveille, Teri Weinberg, to the top post at NBC Uni TV Studio, most likely at an executive vp level. Silverman's oversight of the studio is not in line with long-anticipated plans to completely fold studio operations into the network.
Also an open question is who will take over management of Reveille, a decision Silverman indicated could be disclosed in the coming days. Sources suggest that he might tap recently promoted Christopher Grant, executive vp international distribution and creative affairs, in a continuation of the overseas orientation that has been a big part of Reveille's DNA from its inception. Other candidates include key Silverman lieutenants Howard Owens and Mark Koops.
While Silverman retains ownership of Reveille, he will derive no revenue from future programming deals that emerge from the company. Asked how Silverman will deal with the awkward position of counterprogramming against his own shows on other networks, Zucker joked, "I hope he kills 'Ugly Betty.' "
Nellie Andreeva contributed to this report.