Commentary: Silverman is no corporate insider

Rogue approach more suited for the indie world

Some guys just aren't cut out for the corporate world.

When Ben Silverman announced his departure from NBC Universal to start a new-media venture with Barry Diller, the surprise wasn't that the agent-turned-producer-turned-executive was leaving the company whose flagship network he once said he was born to run, it's that he lasted this long in a corporate environment that most insiders believe did not suit him.

From his first days at NBC, Silverman painted himself as a rogue outsider whose success building (and eventually selling) Reveille would afford him the freedom to bring fresh ideas and an entrepreneurial spirit to the GE-owned network. That might have been true, but Silverman's transition from the say-anything, do-anything world of independent producing to the staid Burbank studio culture wasn't exactly smooth -- if it ever happened at all.

I experienced this mismatch firsthand. In September 2007, a few months after he joined NBC, I spent some quality time with Silverman for an Esquire magazine profile. It wasn't a shock that the then-37-year-old exec puffed his chest about his 24/7 lifestyle and his ability to "reinvent the business" -- after all, he's hardly the first successful young exec to consider himself the second coming of Lew Wasserman. But Silverman was unique among modern studio and network heads in that he presented his outrageous personal life as a key business asset, something that could be harnessed and translated into dollars for his employer via his unending enthusiasm, a connection to the zeitgeist and up-all-night relations with talent and advertisers.

"The industry hasn't seen an executive like me in a long time," Silverman boasted.

Maybe, but the attitude that seemed to permeate every aspect of his job was that a salesman's bravado coupled with a constantly buzzing BlackBerry would translate into popular programming. For instance, he hosted that infamous Emmy party with the caged white tiger in part, he told me, because he wanted to show the talent community that NBC was the hot network.

It turns out that showrunners and TV viewers care more about quality material than white tigers.

Silverman's public persona was refreshingly candid, if often self-serving, compared to his carefully managed peers. But he seemed not to notice or care that he didn't work for himself anymore or that his words and actions might come back to haunt his employer.

Within 20 minutes of meeting me, and with the tape-recorder rolling, Silverman had called ABC Entertainment president Stephen McPherson a "sad man" and a "moron," disparaged ABC programming as "chick shit" and dismissed his network rivals as "D-girls." The remarks got him some bad press, but he never really apologized in the manner you might expect from a high-ranking figure in a multi-national conglomerate.

That above-the-fray view of the business showed up in other ways. Silverman famously blew off a meeting with then-Endeavor topper Ari Emanuel, leading to an uncomfortable back-and-forth in the NBCU commissary. Business ethics watchdogs seethed when Silverman bought at least 14 shows and scripts from his former company, thus boosting its value before its eventual sale to Elizabeth Murdoch's Shine. It was a smart move from an independent businessman's perspective, but the appearance of a conflict of interest didn't do much to win friends among GE shareholders.

Now Silverman is returning to "entrepreneurial roots." That makes for a nice press release, but from the moment he joined NBC, it seemed he never really gave them up.