NBC execs dodge $6 mil question


The question came firing out of the audience sitting in the Beverly Hilton Hotel's International Ballroom with predictable swiftness -- that is, first. When TV critics smell blood in the water, they pounce, and as this was Day 1 of NBC's leg of the semi-annual Television Critics Association Press Tour, the custodians recently hired/promoted to guide the fortunes of NBC Entertainment and NBC Universal Television Studio weren't going to have an easy time of it.

And so on Monday morning, the new co-chairmen Ben Silverman and Marc Graboff took the punch that was actually intended for NBC Universal president and CEO Jeff Zucker. It was a stiff jab rather than an uppercut or a hook but wound up inflicting surprisingly minimal damage.

"Ben," the critic began, "what would you say about a company that hires somebody for $6 million and fires them after a month? Is that a good company or a bad company?"

This would qualify as one of those rhetorical questions, as I imagine few of us would set out to hire someone to work for a month for 6 big ones and then dump him by the side of the road. The reference here is of course to Kevin Reilly, the man who put NBC's primetime schedule in place as its entertainment guru last spring after having recently received a three-year contract extension only to: A) get shoved aside; B) quit; C) have his feelings really, really hurt; D) be told "See that door? Use it"; or E) all of the above.

Oh, and then last week Reilly was hired to be the new entertainment president at Fox Broadcasting. So all is forgiven. Sorta. But not necessarily by the critics, who as a group like and respect Reilly and know a rat when they smell one -- which, as it happens, is relatively often.

So how did Silverman respond to the above query? With phrases like "I only just arrived" and "We're really excited by what we're doing today." It was the kind of reply they teach you in Question Evasion School in the class titled "Non-Addressing for Dummies."

But to either his great credit or chagrin, Graboff would have none of that.

"He wasn't fired," Graboff revealed, inspiring instant guffaws. "What happened was when Ben became available, about three months after we made Kevin's new deal, we jumped at the opportunity to bring Ben on board to the company. We thought he would be able to be the person that was going to take us to the next level. Kevin, when that happened, realized or determined, frankly, that there was just no role for him at the company and decided to move on."

Oh, so now I get it. It was one of those situations where you introduce someone's replacement, politely ask, "Oh, are you still here?" and then summon all of your very finest acting skills to feign mild surprise at his decision to bolt. And then, despite the fact said exec has purportedly "quit" of his own accord, you opt to pay off his contract anyway, no doubt just to be nice.

Brilliant! Those NBC dudes are geniuses! I mean, this way, not only does Zucker rise above any accusation of being just a bottom-line guy, he can now claim to be his generation's corporate Mother Teresa.

It's one of those rare showbiz tales with a truly happy ending. NBC got its man in Silverman. Reilly -- a good gent as well as a smart one -- landed on his feet and then some. Zucker dodged a very big bullet. And the critics laughed less than they could have.

This is starting to feel like a magical summer indeed.