The wild party is over: Ben Silverman finally out at NBC
It's hardly a shocker to read the news that Ben Silverman is finally -- after a year of breathless speculation -- out at NBC, having announced that he is leaving his post as network entertainment chief to form a new venture with Barry Diller, a longtime Silverman mentor and perhaps the oldest living new-media mogul on the planet.
The immediate spin is that NBC had enough of Silverman, who enjoyed a relatively short, unhappy life at the media conglomerate, being perhaps the worst fit ever as the head of a corporate media TV unit.
On the other hand, you could argue that Silverman finally had enough of NBC, which is, under Jeff Zucker, one of the worst places ever to serve as a top executive, since when anything goes wrong at the top, Zucker is a master at deflecting all the bad news away from himself and directly at his luckless corporate underlings. (Which is why NBC Universal film chiefs Marc Shmuger and David Linde, now in the midst of an ever-deepening summer box-office slump, should be very, very worried, despite having Ron Meyer in their corner, since Zucker's reach, when it comes to laying blame, is very, very long.)
I met Silverman a couple of times over the years and came away from our last lunch together both impressed and concerned -- impressed because Silverman was full of energy, loaded with bright ideas and not a prisoner to the ways of the past; concerned because someone as iconoclastic and as undisciplined as Silverman was a poor fit for the job of masterminding the programming of an old-fashioned broadcast network, an institution that seems especially resistant to change.
Silverman's high-living personal life earned him far too much notoriety than was good for him. If Universal wanted a raunchy hit comedy, the studio should just buy Silverman's life rights -- they could market the picture as "The Hangover 2." One media sultan that I spoke to this morning, who has spent a lot of time with Silverman over the years, acknowledged that "I've never had dinner with Ben and the same girl twice." As the Vulture blog joked today, Silverman's NBC successor, Jeff Gaspin, is so buttoned-down that "we've been unable to track down a single photo of him skiing, a YouTube video of him singing topless or any published evidence that he's ever rented a white tiger for a house party." But his personal excesses aside, Silverman probably will have more of an impact in Diller Land, since Diller is the embodiment of what today's mega-media conglomerates lack -- the spirit of entrepreneurialism.
Diller was a network boss himself, once upon a time, but got out while the getting was good, realizing that the future lies on the Internet, which rewards out-of-the-box thinking, not the kind of plodding, research-reliant mind-set that remains in place at today's TV networks.
Silverman began his career ascendancy as an agent -- he has far more in common with the free-wheeling Ari Emanuel than he does with any network place-keeper. Like Emanuel, Silverman is a brilliant salesman who can take a good idea -- as he did with his early reality show hits -- and run it across practically any goal line. Like Emanuel, he has five bad ideas for every brilliant one. But he needs the freedom of a Diller-managed company to keep his focus and equilibrium. The one thing that Silverman did especially well at NBC -- finding ingenious new ways to marry advertisers with programming, via product placement embedded in various shows -- is clearly an idea that will find even more purchase in Diller-related Web programming ventures.
The good news: While you can expect NBC to take even fewer chances than ever in the next few years, it was telling that when Zucker announced Silverman's successor, he described Gaspin not as a visionary or a brilliant creative mind but as an executive with "the business acumen necessary to succeed in today's media environment." At today's networks, it's all about the bottom line. If you want to push the envelope, you should find a niche, as Silverman apparently has, in the new media game.
Silverman may implode or he may hit pay dirt, but one thing is for sure -- he will never be boring. Maybe he'll even launch his own YouTube network, so we can get a few vicarious "Entourage"-style kicks out of watching Silverman enjoying la dolce vita.
No matter what happens, there will be life for Ben Silverman after NBC.
Photo of Ben Silverman by Virginia Sherwood / NBC Universal