One way to look at NBC's move to install Ben Silverman as its co-chairman is that it's a natural outgrowth of the network's ambitious plan to remake itself into a lean and mean digital-age company.
The move to replace Kevin Reilly as entertainment president came just after he signed a new three-year contract and presided over NBC's upfront. Despite his new deal, though, there was rampant speculation about Reilly's fate. Entertainment presidents have the job security of NFL coaches, and as NBC kept punting on fourth down in primetime, many thought Reilly's time had run out. For NBC, in fact, fourth place had become its regular spot in the 18-49 ratings rotation.
It was not all Reilly's fault, as is usually the case when network entertainment presidents get whacked. When programmers get iced, it's not even necessarily a reflection on the overall quality of their programming calls. Look at ABC, which booted the entertainment chiefs who greenlighted Lost and Desperate Housewives but never got to enjoy the results.
The historical argument has been that turning around a network schedule is like turning around a luxury liner: It takes a long time. In the digital age, nobody has that luxury anymore. The fact that three out of the four broadcast networks have ditched their programming captains since 2004 means that those executives have about as much success as most of the new shows they premiere each season.
Part of NBC's cost-cutting and streamlining included limiting what Reilly could put on and where it would go. But, sadly, he probably didn't do himself any favors in personally championing low-rated, high-quality fare like Friday Night Lights or 30 Rock. That was the kind of thing Brandon Tartikoff, with the blessing of Grant Tinker, would have done when television was simpler. In television programming today, there are seldom second acts.
But NBC Universal chief Jeff Zucker said last week that it was not only a case of where the network stood in the ratings but where it stood in the wider world of digital and multi-platforms.
One of the keys to the move was Ben Silverman's grasp of the 2.0 world. “The only message we are trying to send here is, we're not satisfied with the position we are in and we need to do better,” Zucker said. “Ben is an incredibly accomplished producer and developer and executive who thinks globally and thinks about advertisers and digital and content in relation to all of it, and that's what we have to be about as a company.” Indeed, Silverman is also the executive producer of The Office and one of the executive producers of Ugly Betty. We are sorry to see Reilly go. But we are intrigued by what Silverman, the programmer, will bring.
Television schedules inevitably shine brightly and then burn out, like an old GE light bulb. Now we'll see how many NBC executives it takes to turn around a network.
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