NBC no longer wishes to fund life of Reilly


Mamas, don't let your sons grow up to be TV network entertainment division presidents. As a career, it boasts all the stability of a sand castle. It's a lesson that NBC Entertainment chief Kevin Reilly is surely taking to heart right about now as he reportedly negotiates a golden parachute. The man who evidently is pushing Reilly from the plane, NBC Universal head honcho Jeff Zucker, is determined to shake things up. And shaking it up he is.

We're expecting to learn any minute now -- if we haven't learned it already -- that Zucker is bringing in Ben Silverman, the producer behind such NBC hits as "The Office" and "The Biggest Loser" and ABC's beloved freshman "Ugly Betty" via his company Reveille, to be the new programming guru (though apparently in a higher executive capacity).

Reilly. Reveille. If you move your lips just right, they sound almost the same. The difference is that Silverman is flying high as a dude with the magic touch, while Reilly ... well, all he's done is his best, which was pretty good but -- for a network still languishing in fourth place in primetime -- clearly not good enough.

Rumors always seemed to have Reilly's job in jeopardy. Yet as he proved himself a survivor, he was someone you wanted to see succeed. He's been easily the most affable and down to earth of the network programming titans and carried a bit of the riverboat gambler with him. He took chances that others didn't, standing behind poorly performing quality shows in a fashion that recalled NBC's 1980s glory days with a fellow named Brandon Tartikoff.

"The Office" broke from the gate both creatively reviled (how dare it soil the memory of the beloved British edition!) and ratings-challenged. It was primed to get whacked. But Reilly refused, instead padding its episode order and renewing it -- willing it to success and ultimately an Emmy for top comedy series last year. It was downright Tartikoff-esque, particularly in an environment of such impatience.

Indeed, Reilly has given the audience more water-cooler shows than any other network over the past few years, from the comedies "The Office," "My Name Is Earl" and "30 Rock" to the dramas "Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip," "Friday Night Lights" (the current critics darling) and "Heroes," pretty much the only bona fide breakout hit to launch this past season. He stuck with "Lights" and "Rock" even when the numbers didn't justify it, simply because he believed in them.

But if Reilly appeared to be doing an effective job of building for the future, he was also stuck in the wrong era. Slow builds like "Friday Night Lights" and "30 Rock" don't cut it in the instant-gratification age. Zucker couldn't abide a big-vision guy while shareholders barked in his ear.

And so, it seems, a programmer with savvy, keen instincts and an old-time philosophy for how to craft a primetime schedule is getting the boot, as much a victim of the times as his performance. His landing will be softened by several million dollars in contractual payoff, because he'd signed a new three-year deal a mere three months ago.

What could have happened between March and now to justify Reilly being forced out? Word is that his superiors weren't thrilled with his new fall 2007-08 schedule. Even so, that's a perplexingly quick hook in the wake of such a lucrative vote of confidence.

Reilly obviously deserved better than this. But he also has to realize that in today's network universe, it's far more about "What have you done for me lately?" than "How are we set for tomorrow?"