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The Silverman lining in NBC's cloud

November 21, 2008 |  7:26 am

If Ben Silverman is getting ready to leave the peacock flock, neither he nor NBC is acting like it. In fact, the signals suggest he's not about to fly the coop.

On Thursday NBC parent company General Electric Co. added Silverman to the board of the Peacock Equity Fund, a $250-million media investment vehicle owned by NBC Universal and GE Commercial Finance. Earlier in the week, Silverman sat across the table from interviewer-of-the-moguls Charlie Rose to wax about the future of digital entertainment, television and advertising.Silverman_2

And then there was a curious item on the New York Post's Page Six last week that all but left bus tire treads on Katherine Pope, who runs NBC's in-house TV studio that produced the network's failed series "My Own Worst Enemy." The item, which many in Hollywood speculated was spin to take the heat off Silverman, blamed Pope for NBC's struggles in prime time.

Silverman has been engaged in negotiations for a new contract that would extend his tenure as co-chairman of NBC Entertainment and Universal Media Studios beyond June, when his current contract expires. One person close to the situation says a deal could be reached by the end of the year.

Almost from the start, some have questioned Silverman's commitment to NBC.

For example, the free-spirited TV producer back in June 2007 would sign only a two-year deal, figuring that would be sufficient for him to turbo-charge NBC's lackluster prime-time lineup. Then the ambitious entrepreneur could move on to bigger things.

But six months after Silverman took the gig, the network TV business, already in decline, tumbled off a cliff.Ctlogosmall_2 

Script writers went on strike, shutting down production of shows. TV executives scrambled to plug their schedules with mediocre replacement programs. Once the strike was settled in February, they had to prepare a fall season without the benefit of the traditional program development process.

Then the season got off to a shaky start. The major networks are now posting record low ratings. Most new fall shows, including Silverman's pet projects, the Christian Slater drama "My Own Worst Enemy," the adventure series "Crusoe" and the Brooke Shields power-woman drama "Lipstick Jungle," have sputtered or choked.

If all of that wasn't depressing enough, the faltering economy has prompted advertisers to scale back their purchase of commercial time. Media executives are bracing for an ugly first quarter.

All of this makes it a lousy time to be running a major network -- making some wonder why Silverman needs the headache. He doesn't need an NBC paycheck, since earlier this year he sold his production company, Reveille, to Elisabeth Murdoch for more than $125 million.

But NBC would like to keep Silverman, according to people close to him. His bosses think he's been a good steward. Profit has increased this year, in part because Silverman wooed advertisers to plug their products in NBC shows such as "Knight Rider." He has also been instrumental in lowering the network's programming costs through co-productions (of course, all networks have had lower programming costs this year because of the strike).

Two months ago, NBC Universal Chief Executive Jeff Zucker appeared to be teeing up expectations that Silverman would stay put.

"I could not be more pleased with the job that he's done," Zucker said of Silverman in an interview with The Times. "He's done everything that we've asked of him."   

-- Meg James

Photo: NBC Universal