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NBC fracas threatens HRTS lunch

October 3, 2008 |  1:47 pm

Is Condoleezza Rice handy?  Tensions are rising in Hollywood. This week, high-level negotiations have been underway to defuse a volatile situation: Who is important enough to take the stage during the television industry's upcoming annual "presidents luncheon." Silverman_2 

The gathering is hosted by the Hollywood Radio & Television Society, an institution that has been around so long (since Harry S. Truman was president) that radio still gets top billing in the organization's name. Originally scheduled for Oct. 29, the luncheon typically involves debate -- and a healthy dollop of ribbing -- among the entertainment chiefs of ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox and the CW. Now the date, and even the participants, are in doubt.

The issue: whether NBC Entertainment co-Chairman Ben Silverman, who represented NBC last year, will attend, and if co-Chairman Marc Graboff instead will appear; or if NBC's chair on the stage would be conspicuously unoccupied.  Silverman and Graboff, according to three people familiar with negotiations, have said that they would not participate. Reason: technically, they are chairmen with more duties -- not presidents -- and a chairman is a notch above president.

Mcpherson2 Last year, more than 1,000 people in the industry attended the luncheon, with many (well, most) hoping to see fireworks between ABC Entertainment President Steve McPherson and Silverman. McPherson was steamed that NBC a few months earlier had unceremoniously eliminated the job of his good friend, Kevin Reilly, to make room for Silverman. McPherson was incredulous that Silverman had told journalists that he wasn't to blame for Reilly losing his job. In fact, Silverman had been interviewing for the top programming job at NBC, which encompassed Reilly's duties. During the summer press tour, McPherson challenged Silverman to "be a man."

But the overflow crowd at last year's luncheon was disappointed. There were no bottle rockets, but there were some memorable digging. Director/Producer Barry Sonnenfeld, the panel moderator, asked the entertainment chiefs from CBS and the CW whether their Big Boss, CBS Corp. Chief Executive Leslie Moonves, has "ever threatened to kill one of you?" (No, they said.) Silverman attempted to make light of his party-boy reputation by saying that when other network executives were home with their families, he was out "dating their kids."  To which Reilly, who had just been installed as Fox's entertainment president, replied, "I have boys." The crowd roared.Reilly1

No wonder Silverman doesn't want to participate this year. And there could be another reason. His tumultuous 16-month tenure at NBC so far hasn't ushered in the turnaround the network had hoped. By skipping the event, Silverman won't face embarrassing questions.

This is not about dodging questions, according to two people familiar with NBC's position. NBC told HRTS that it would send its top programming executive, Teri Weinberg, on behalf of NBC. She has nearly the same duties as most of the other panelists and is the "appropriate" representative, according to the two people.

No way, say the other networks and HRTS.  Adopting NBC's own argument about rank and title, they said Weinberg isn't a president and thus doesn't belong on the stage. NBC got miffed, and saying they weren't about to let HRTS dictate who they sent to the panel.

HRTS says they will announce the event when they've nailed down the participants.

-- Meg James

Photos: Ben Silverman (Credit: Stephen Shugerm / Getty Images); Steve McPherson (Credit: Donna Svennevik / ABC); Kevin Reilly (Credit: Michael Buckner / Getty Images)