Left Coast Bias: Don't Be Afraid to Make a Rock Star Hire

Ben Silverman's tenure at NBC didn't go as well as either had hoped, but the thinking behind the hire was the right kind of desperate
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If you think I've admitted some embarrassing stuff in the past, buckle up because you're gonna love this. From 2000 to 2001, I held the title of PR guy for the XFL.

Yes, that XFL. As in one terrible wrestling-meets-football season and out. As in blowing through $70 million in Madoffian fashion. And yes, as in He Hate Me.

And while everyone looks back on that as an unmitigated disaster, it actually wasn't considered such a bad idea at the time if you follow the money.

When football and the World Wrestling Federation were pressed together, the result before a single ball was kicked was immeasurable buzz, huge ticket sales (more than 35,000 fans per game at stadiums' opening weekends) and major sponsorship money. There was front-page coverage everywhere, and opening-weekend television ratings you still wouldn't believe if you went back and looked at them; more than 50 million people watched XFL games that weekend, according to the numbers I probably helped doctor.

And then, months later it was gone because the execution of the product absolutely stunk, though the networks that cover football definitely picked up some tips from how the new league presented the sport on television.

So let's summarize: A gutsy and flamboyant presence was an educated long shot because it seemed out of place from the start. And after its infamous flameout, everyone now talks about how horrible it was even though a lot of people thought it wasn't that bad an idea at the time.

That brings me to last week's news that NBC Universal and Ben Silverman are parting ways. Ben Silverman's tenure at NBC didn't go nearly as well as either party would have liked. Everyone knows that, and everyone knows why. Old news—don't care. What I do care about is the thinking behind his hire a couple of years ago, which was one of desperation.

That's not meant as a knock, by the way; quite the opposite. In fact, it's time to remove the stigma from desperation, as everyone in big media is feeling it, or they should be.

One way to channel desperation to your advantage is to hire some non-traditional people for traditional positions and start to blow up stuff quickly enough to stay relevant. Be gutsy and hire smart people, especially from non-traditional ranks.

Network television is coming off a fall where—all together now—exactly one new show was a hit, Warner Bros.' The Mentalist on CBS. And while cable television is having a nice run right now, most in the business know the halcyon days could be short-lived if they don't evolve the model on the fly.

So to combat the inertia crippling big media companies, one weapon will have to be a few gutsy hires, from top to bottom. Companies must bring in some people who aren't entrenched in traditional modes of thinking, who reject in knee-jerk fashion the premises that frame the decisions slowly killing much of television, even if they ruffle feathers or flat-out piss people off.

It is easy now for many to say that Ben Silverman and NBC went together about as well as wrestling and bad football did in 2001. But in both marriages, at the time the thinking was right in many regards, no matter what happened.

Because if you're afraid to take big swings that could potentially fail right now, especially in your hiring practices, you can bet your business will continue to get body-slammed.

E-mail comments to
ben.grossman@reedbusiness.com

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