ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
Facing declining ratings, the networks are in a panic, and none more so than last place NBC. That was the reason for a shake up there last week. Ben Silverman was named co-chairman of NBC's entertainment operations. He is the 36-year-old independent producer of such shows as "The Office" and "Ugly Betty."
And as NPR's Kim Masters' reports, Silverman's mandate is bigger than saving one network.
KIM MASTERS: Silverman is a young man whose mission may not be possible. He is expected to pull NBC out of the rating's basement and in the process to figure out how a television network can survive as audiences shrink. Fortunately, he thinks he's up to the job.
Mr. BEN SILVERMAN (Co-chairman, NBC): Network television overall is under siege a little bit, and so it's really kind of analyzing, okay, how do we all, you know, move in to the future? And I think that I see the moves.
MASTERS: He has yet to reveal exactly what those moves are, but the starting point is old fashioned - coming up with hit shows. Silverman has done it as a producer by successfully revamping programs that originated overseas. That was true of "The Office" and "Ugly Betty."
(Soundbite of show "Ugly Betty")
Unidentified Woman: Hey, look, your name on a mouse pad.
Ms. AMERICA FERRERA (Actress): (As Betty Suarez) Really?
Unidentified Woman: Well, sort of. They spelled it Betsy Swans(ph).
Ms. FERRERA: Oh.
MASTERS: Now the big question is whether that experience will be enough in Silverman's new job.
Ms. SHARI ANNE BRILL (Vice President, Carat USA): He has a very impressive track record.
MASTERS: Shari Anne Brill is a veteran analyst of programming for the ad agency Carat USA. And she speaks for many in the industry when she adds the inevitable but.
Ms. BRILL: It's a whole different ballgame when you're building programming contents from scratch.
MASTERS: Another source of doubt about Silverman is his penchant for making so-called reality shows. As an agent, he helped bring "Who Wants To Be A Millionaire" to the U.S. He says that type of show doesn't deserve the bad reputation that clings to the genre.
Mr. SILVERMAN: Watching these shows like "The Swan" and "Extreme Makeover: Plastic Surgery Edition," which was about plastic surgery. It was about the cheap fix and it was dangerous - it repulsed me. To me, the message of "The Biggest Loser" is about it's up to you. How do you change yourself from the inside out?
MASTERS: Silverman is also known for what's called product integration. That means weaving a promotion into a show as happened when characters from "The Office" went to eat at Chili's Restaurant. Former NBC executive Ted Harbert, who now runs the Comcast Entertainment Group says that strategy was one of the keys to Silverman's success. Harbert says salesman at the network didn't like a producer making pacts directly with advertisers.
Mr. TED HARBERT (CEO and President, Comcast Entertainment Group): He just didn't have any respect for that tradition. And when he made his own deals with advertisers and brought them to the network and said, here it is, plop it on the desk and said let's go, and made it difficult to say no.
MASTERS: At a time when digital video recorders make it possible to fast-forward through commercials, Silverman says those types of deals will keep television alive.
Mr. SILVERMAN: I get the joke, you know, television is finance by advertisers. And if advertisers are telling you, I have an issue that I'm concern that my advertising is being skipped, you better come up with a solution for them.
MASTERS: And done right, Silverman doesn't think audiences, particularly young ones, will recoil.
Mr. SILVERMAN: If the programming is good, if the characters resonate, if the emotional connections are there, they're going to be okay with some brand messaging. Otherwise, the shows don't exist.
MASTERS: Clearly, Silverman is determined to avoid being known as the man who turned NBC into a purveyor of schlock. He has repeatedly said his role model is the late legendary television executive Brandon Tartikoff, who presided over NBC in the era of "Hill Street Blues," "The Cosby Show" and "Cheers." Silverman also says he's inspired by "All in the Family," the groundbreaking sitcom that dealt with such issues as race and homosexuality. His ambition, Silverman says, is to inject that kind of social relevance into NBC programming.
Mr. SILVERMAN: "The Office" has conversations all day long through humor, and that's what "All in the Family" did, you know. And you can do it through humor, character and emotion but you're creating a dialogue and people are talking and people are taking notice.
MASTERS: There are also questions about whether Silverman has the temperament to deal with the tedious details of running a network. He has a reputation as a player, as a party animal, in fact. Now, he's expected to be an executive at a company owned by the famously corporate GE. Though he shows up for an interview in baggy olive-drabbed pants and a bright red baseball cap, he says he's ready to wear a suit maybe without the tie.
Mr. SILVERMAN: I'm a single guy, and you know, I absolutely do enjoy myself and have enjoyed myself. And you know it's funny that people look to that, but I'm a creative guy. And I hang out with my talent. I'm best friends with my actors. I'm best friends with my writers and directors. And living in that world, you're of that world, you know. I'm living in a different world now, and I'm of this world.
MASTERS: It appears that, like the television business itself, Silverman is at moment of transition. Given how long it takes to rebuild a network, there may not be a hint as to how he functions in a new world until NBC unveils it's schedule for the fall of 2008.
Kim Masters, NPR News.
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