Marc Graboff was about to get thrown to the wolves, and he knew it.
It was last summer at the Television Critics Association press tour at the Beverly Hilton hotel. Graboff was seated next to his NBC Entertainment co-chair, Ben Silverman, who had recently been hired when the company ousted former entertainment president Kevin Reilly.
The TCA event was the media’s first chance to ask NBC executives about the firing of Reilly, who was generally well-liked by the press. This would also be Graboff’s first time in front of what was basically the entire television press corps.
Graboff and Reilly had always been friendly, and Graboff didn’t want to come on and say flat-out that NBC had fired him. And yet he knew anything else would sound ridiculous, since that was exactly what happened. It wasn’t going to be fun.
“Someone had to be the sacrificial lamb,” he remembered. “I wasn’t nervous, but everyone knew it was coming.”
And come it did: It was the first question. So Graboff took the bullet, giving a roundabout answer and denying that Reilly was sacked. Some media members actually laughed out loud.
It was the “welcome to the spotlight” moment for a man who had operated for years behind the scenes, under bombastic figures like Les Moonves and Jeff Zucker.
And now with über-showman Silverman working at his side, the spotlight again is directed elsewhere. But in agreeing to sit for his first extended profile since becoming a co-chairman at NBC, Graboff is beginning to embrace the need to step out on his own, which he admitted he has been averse to in the past.
Last year’s press conference was a bit of a public coming-out party for Graboff. However, he needs no such introduction within the business. Despite his somewhat rocky exit from CBS in 2000 and being part of the NBC team that has shepherded a complete primetime collapse, he has maintained a stellar reputation in the business as not only a proficient executive, but a real mensch. As a result, there are many execs, both inside and outside NBC, who regard Graboff as the glue that really holds the place together.
CAA’S WORST ASSISTANT EVER
A Brooklyn native, Graboff and his family moved to California when he was four, and he grew up with the bug to work in television. In high school, he would spend hours in the library studying television schedules and the weekly issues of Broadcasting magazine.
Despite that social flaw, he actually had a girlfriend and, luckily for him, one who bought into his love for the medium. For a gift one year, she made him a CBS eye out of papier-mâché, which he actually found when cleaning out a box about 10 years ago.
“I was kind of a nerd, but at least I had a girlfriend,” he said.
He went on to study communications at UCLA and, in 1977, when he was ready to graduate, he pursued a mailroom job at an agency. He was striking out until one day, while hanging out in his fraternity house, someone yelled that he had a call from someone named “Michael Ortiz.”
Graboff went to the phone and on the other end was a young up-and-coming agent at a new agency called Creative Artists. His name was Michael Ovitz, and Graboff was about to become CAA’s first mailroom trainee.
And he remembers vividly how he was treated. “Like shit, like a slave,” he said with a laugh as he recalls stories of cleaning the men’s room and dirty coffee cups when he’d arrive at 7 a.m. “There was no program before, so you were supposed to learn through osmosis.”
Within six months, he was made assistant to a talent agent named Ron Meyer. Graboff was memorably terrible. “He was certainly the worst assistant I ever had,” said Meyer, now Universal Studios’ president and chief operating officer.
Graboff agreed that he may have been the worst assistant CAA ever had, as he would constantly forget to give Meyer phone messages. “I made him so crazy he’d throw stuff at me, scream at me, you name it,” Graboff said.
But Meyer didn’t want to fire him, so CAA decided to try him as an agent. Meyer wasn’t sure if becoming an agent was what launched Graboff’s career, but he knows one thing. “It certainly helped mine,” he said.
But CAA wasn’t yet the powerhouse it is today, and being an agent wasn’t right for Graboff. So by 1979, he was applying to law schools. He went on to graduate top of his class from Loyola Law School in 1983 before going on to work for several different law firms.
In 1985, he represented Wheel of Fortune’s Vanna White in a lawsuit over some photos that Playboy had gotten hold of. “I got to not only represent Vanna, but I got to look at all of those pictures and get paid for it,” Graboff said, not working hard enough to hide his smile.
But after more than one decade in the law-firm environment, he began to crave a return to a more business-oriented role. He got his chance in 1997 when Nancy Tellem asked him to join CBS’ business affairs department. The two had known each other from their days at Merv Griffin’s company, he as outside counsel and she in-house.
Graboff jumped at the chance and, not long after he was hired, Tellem got promoted from head of business affairs to head of entertainment. She made Graboff her successor.
And he would be the first to admit that he was in over his head. “Oh my God, I certainly was not prepared, but I had cover because I had the title of head of business affairs, but I really wasn’t, just like Nancy wasn’t before me. Leslie [Moonves] was always the head of business affairs.”
Graboff was happy to admit that he learned as much from Moonves as anyone through his career. “He manages somewhat through fear and intimidation, but his style works for him, and you have to have your own style, and I respected him a lot,” Graboff said. “The first time he screamed at me, I walked out of the room and was like, ‘Oh shit,’ and then someone came and put their arm around me and said, ‘Welcome to the inner circle.’”
Graboff has fond memories of his time at CBS, forging close relationships with executives such as Tellem and current entertainment president Nina Tassler: “We were bonded at times almost as a group of abused children.”
JUMPING TO THE EVIL EMPIRE
But things took a turn for the worse in 2000 when Moonves and Graboff fell out over an important clause in the renewal contract for the hit Survivor. To this day, it remains a he-said, he-said over what exactly happened, but the bottom line is that Mark Burnett got very rich and everyone at CBS got very riled.
“When you work there, you are very loyal to Les, and I was, but that was the first chink in the armor of me wanting to stay there,” Graboff recalled. “Within a few weeks everything was fine, but it planted a seed.”
The seed was sown later that year. Graboff was close to reupping with CBS when he was approached by NBC executive Scott Sassa. And the Survivor incident made him listen, although NBC was considered the evil empire by Moonves’ army.
What followed was a quick -- and, at times, very awkward -- courtship. It began at Cedars Sinai Hospital in Los Angeles, where Sassa’s wife was about to give birth.
“He says to come to room whatever-it-was, and I said, ‘I don’t know you, I am not coming to your wife’s room, we’ll meet in the waiting room,’” Graboff recalled.
Graboff was actually happy to be meeting in an odd location. “I was afraid to meet him at a restaurant; if Les found out, I was dead.”
The Sassa meeting went well, so he called in sick the next day and flew to New York for more interviews. Of course, his bosses at CBS were looking for him all day, but his assistant -- who now works for him at NBC -- faithfully stuck by Graboff’s stomach-flu story.
Graboff landed the gig as head of business affairs for NBC’s West Coast operations, returned to Los Angeles and resigned from CBS. He recalled Moonves being less than pleased.
“For a while, I was dead to him,” Graboff said. “He was portraying to everyone that he had fired me, which is fine, that’s his prerogative.”
While Moonves and Tellem declined to speak for attribution for this story, both sides said the wounds have long since healed.
‘WHO THE HELL IS JEFF ZUCKER?’
Just three weeks after Graboff began at NBC, Sassa tapped a new entertainment chief: Jeff Zucker.
“I’m like, ‘Who the hell is Jeff Zucker?’” Graboff recalled. “I was told he was a 30-year-old hotshot from the Today show. I figured I don’t report to him, so fine. Whoever this Zucker guy is, whatever, I can get along with anyone, I guess.”
Remembering Zucker as confident but not arrogant, the duo officed next to each other and quickly forged a strong bond that continues today.
Graboff’s role at NBC began in business affairs, but it has grown steadily over the years. With increasing oversight of businesses including NBC Universal’s network and studio, he quietly amassed influence -- and allies -- in the company.
Graboff called his and Zucker’s $10 million-per-episode season-10 renewal of Friends in 2002 one of his personal crowning moments. But the pride was short-lived: Not long afterward, the NBC schedule began to collapse.
“The schedule was already getting a little shaky; the cycle was catching up to us,” he said. “We tried to stave it off as long as we could. Of course, we wanted a replacement for Friends. You find that when you are No. 1, you are much more conservative; you are doing everything you can to hang on.”
Zucker was promoted to head of the television group and Reilly joined as entertainment president, but the slide from first place to fourth was unstoppable. And it wasn’t a lot of fun.
“When you are going down that slide, people start getting nervous about their jobs, and then people get political, and then the knives come out,” Graboff said. “Bad news was coming in every day; bad press. Jeff’s popularity or lack thereof in the press and around town was coming back to haunt us. It was tough to keep morale up around here. It became challenging, and we’re not out of that challenge yet.”
Last May, Zucker turned to Silverman, who was named co-chairman of NBC Entertainment along with Graboff. That’s when life got pretty interesting for Graboff. Silverman has long been a lightning rod for attention, for everything from how he would fit into the General Electric culture to many people’s strange -- and just as likely envious -- obsession with his private life.
The press conference one year ago at the start of the Silverman era was just the beginning of a new phase in Graboff’s career, one for which he has a pet name. “I call this in a very affectionate way, ‘Ben’s World,’” he said. “When Ben’s World started, of course, I wasn’t used to anything like that.”
No industry loves to throw rumors around quite as much as Hollywood, and there were plenty of them following Silverman. From the outset, there was a rumor that he hadn’t taken his drug test to start his new job because he wouldn’t be able to pass it. Graboff heard it all, and wasn’t sure how to react.
“It was part, ‘What’s going on here?’ and part exciting,” he admitted. “I don’t want to condone drug use, and honestly, I don’t know about any of that stuff and don’t want to. But the fact is that Ben’s out there at night and knows everybody and is so plugged into young Hollywood. I love that. Do I like hearing the stories about the alleged drug use? Of course not. If he does it, I don’t see it. Whenever I’m working day-to-day with Ben, he’s nothing but focused.”
There have been plenty of other Ben’s World instances, such as when Silverman called ABC’s Steve McPherson and Fox’s Reilly “D-Girls” -- unflattering industry slang for young female development execs.
Graboff remembered his reaction clearly. “I was like, ‘Oh shit!’” he recalled. “Ben’s learning a lesson that when you are in these jobs, you are in a fishbowl, and you can’t say things you think are flippant without it coming back to bite you.”
And then there is the deal with Reveille, the production company Silverman founded. When Silverman came to the network, NBC said his portion of the company would be put in a blind trust. But when NBC began snatching up Reveille product and then Reveille eventually got sold to Elisabeth Murdoch’s Shine for a reported $125 million, the term “conflict of interest” came up and never left.
Graboff heard the scuttlebutt and wasn’t thrilled. “The perception of a conflict is as bad as conflict itself, so I don’t like that there is a perception of conflict,” he acknowledged.
And he wanted no part of separating church and state. “At the outset of Ben’s coming over here, I made it clear to the company that for me to work effectively as the partner, I can’t be expected to be the policeman of the conflict. I would help identify the conflict, but I would not be the one to determine if the conflict was acceptable.”
CHEECH AND CHONG
Needless to say, with all that goes on in Ben’s World, Silverman and Graboff have one of the more interesting partnerships in the business, with Silverman viewed as the entrepreneurial, creative showman and Graboff the grounded business exec savvy in the workings of both Hollywood and GE. It seems not only cohesive, but necessary.
“I wanted to say yin and yang, but maybe it’s more like Cheech and Chong,” producer Gary Scott Thompson said with a laugh. “They really do complement each other incredibly. Ben is this big idea throwing it against the wall, and Marc is that calming influence, and then Ben will move on to the next thing.”
For his part, Silverman said Graboff helped him from day one. “He’s great because he knows where the bodies are and the myriad of diverse relationships inherent in running a network,” Silverman said. “He also knows what my vision is, and he operates in great partnership to make sure it gets executed. While I’m sitting in those 20 meetings with 3,000 advertisers and their agencies, he is making sure we deliver what we promise.”
Graboff, for instance, was a big part of the deal with DirecTV to get fan-favorite Friday Night Lightsa third season. And so far, Graboff’s boss is happy with the team.
“Ben wasn’t an obvious choice, so certainly Marc gives us a great combination of inside and outside,” NBCU chief Zucker said, “a great combination of showmanship and button-down.”
But there are others -- including friends of Graboff and those who work for him -- who think Marc is unfairly burdened with “cleaning up” after Silverman.
“Graboff is the one who’s always stuck trying to fix it when Ben makes some handshake deal over drinks the night before,” said an NBC employee speaking anonymously because the employee was not authorized to comment for this story. “He also has to keep things smooth with the [Warner Bros. Television president] Bruce Rosenblums and [Law & Order producer] Dick Wolfs of the world, the ones Jeff and Ben piss off.”
And obviously, that assertion does not please Zucker or Silverman. “I think that’s a perception that people in town who are scared of the way the business is changing want to present; I don’t think that’s the way it works in reality at all,” Zucker said. “Ben completely understands the role he plays and Marc understands the role he plays, and together, we have a terrific team, and no one has to clean up after anyone else.”
“I really care about our ad clients and partners; I really couldn’t care less what the fishbowl of our competitors cares about us,” Silverman echoed. “And the community at large we deal with as far as who drives our results I imagine sees us as we see ourselves.”
And the community at large tends to like Graboff, as do most of his employees. “There are so many assholes in this business, it’s nice to have someone like that,” said another NBC employee not authorized to speak on the record. “I think he is the one keeping some good people from leaving.”
‘I DON’T HAVE THICK SKIN’
Given that reputation, Graboff was admittedly rocked when he got trashed by well-read industry Web site Deadline Hollywood Daily, which quoted an unnamed source as saying that he “makes the worst deals in town, throwing money away like crazy and focusing only on the short-term impact. For this, agents and lawyers like him because they know he can be easily worked.”
Not used to any publicity, much less bad publicity, Graboff was crushed. “It’s the first piece of bad press I ever got and I don’t have thick skin,” he said. “I was very upset.”
Obviously Graboff refuted the assertion, as did many of the people with whom he does business. “He isn’t a pushover, but is a rare business guy who understands both sides of the fence and knows that everything doesn’t always make sense on a spreadsheet,” ICM chief Chris Silbermann said.
But Graboff will never be known as a tough guy, despite his cell phone ringing to the tune of Ennio Morricone’s theme from The Good, the Bad and the Ugly in his office one afternoon. He is, however, at age 52, ready to be better known.
“I think I am making a transition from being a business guy to being more of somebody that can be -- and this sounds self-serving and arrogant -- a business leader,” he acknowledged.
But to his credit, he knows his limitations, for which both friends and rivals praise him. “I am not a creative guy; I’m not going to write anything,” he said. “And I don’t know if I can even recognize something that is brilliantly created.”
Ideally, he’d love to run his own shop one day. But he’s not ready to leave NBC yet, not in this condition. Business has been better lately, with network operating profits up 50% over the first half of last year and Universal Media Studios having record second-quarter profits. Still, while his reputation is great, he -- and others -- knows that he needs to help turn things around.
“You have to deliver the goods,” Meyer said. “Being a good guy is not enough.”