Many television executives have ties to the legendary Brandon Tartikoff and followed the late NBC programmer's vision. Ben Silverman has a slightly different connection.
Fifteen years ago, Silverman was the junior member of Brandon Tartikoff's softball team. “I was the kid running around chasing the ball,” he says.
He was 23 and working with Tartikoff at New World/Marvel Entertainment, where Tartikoff was chairman. (When asked what position he played on the softball team, Silverman responded: “Anything I was told.”)
Tartikoff—by then an imposing figure in the industry with a long resume of creative masterstrokes—had already taken Silverman under his wing off the field, tapping him to develop sitcoms for New World based on the library of Marvel Comics characters.
But anyone who knew Tartikoff knew about his love for the game. So when Silverman was invited to join the softball team, he says, “I felt like I was finally being accepted, like Ray Liotta's character in Goodfellas.”
If Silverman doesn't display quite the bruising management style of Liotta's gangster character Henry Hill, it's clear that he's still pining for some measure of acceptance. In interviews, Silverman is given to ticking off the roster of critically praised shows—The Tudors, Ugly Betty, The Office—that he executive-produced while at Reveille, the production company he started in 2002.
“You guys always give me a hard time,” he says, referring to the nattering TV press corps. “But you gotta remember I created [at Reveille] The Biggest Loser, our No. 1 reality show.”
Indeed, Silverman's talent for identifying bankable concepts—like reality skeins—and packaging shows has taken him from softball team gofer to the executive suite in short order. And like Tartikoff, he can take a concept and make it fly.
At the tender age of 38, he's the youngest of the broadcast network chiefs; he shares the chairmanship of NBC Entertainment and Universal Media Studios with 52-year-old Marc Graboff. Tartikoff was just 31 when he became head of NBC Entertainment.
'We Were Very, Very Close'
Silverman started working for Tartikoff shortly after graduating from Tufts University in 1992, where he earned a B.A. in history, and after Tartikoff had left NBC and Paramount Pictures. “He was always an important character in my life,” Silverman says. “We were very, very close and connected while I worked for him.”
Tartikoff, Silverman says, schooled him in the art of communication. It is something that stood Silverman in good stead as the head of the London office of William Morris, where he earned a reputation as a skilled deal-closer.
“He would always say leave nothing to their imagination, spell out everything you can. Whether it's in a pitch or any kind of thought you're trying to get across, and that was very valuable.”
At NBC, Silverman has brought advertisers into the creative tent early, spearheading the network's so-called Infront, and working in conjunction with advertisers to create integrated and long-term brand messaging such as the American Express podbusters on 30 Rock and Maybelline product integration on Lipstick Jungle.
Jungle, Candace Bushnell's follow-up to Sex and the City, has not been a ratings hit. But the show has developed a loyal following. Fans inundated the offices of NBC with tubes of lipstick to protest the impending cancellation of the show.
According to Silverman, Jungle “over-delivered with the advertisers involved, even though it may not have been an unqualified ratings success. That's kept that show going. And the fans really embraced the advertisers.”
Silverman has also initiated new sponsorship opportunities, such as the agreement with Direct TV that gave the satellite provider an exclusive window for the third season of Friday Night Lights in exchange for taking on a share of the program's production costs. And Silverman revived Tartikoff's Knight Rider series, though not as successfully as his mentor. Yet the very idea of bringing that series back struck some as brilliant; since Tartikoff's era, the idea of product placement—in this case, a souped-up Ford Mustang named KITT—has become a huge business.
“Ben does think differently than your normal programming executive,” Graboff says. “And that is one of the things Brandon always did that made him Brandon. He just thought differently. And Ben brings a lot of that to the table, too.”
Silverman arguably kicked off the trend of packaging foreign concepts for American consumption with Who Wants to Be a Millionaire and Survivor. “He really created that whole wave,” Graboff says.
And while some in the creative community may not have completely warmed to the idea of festooning their scripted series with product messages, Silverman is blunt about the evolving exigencies of a business that is no longer confined to linear television.
“Anyone who's made more than $2 working in the television business knows how it works,” he says. “Advertising is the cornerstone of our free-to-air broadcast business, and we need to work with our advertisers to achieve whatever they need to achieve in a digital age.”
This year, NBC will again present its new programs to advertisers ahead of the usual upfront selling week, according to Silverman.
“It was a huge success for both our partners and us in terms of really creating early conversations,” he says. “Those conversations, they'll go on all year long. We work with our clients more closely than any other network.”
The Show's The Thing
The new reality of growing DVR penetration and online streaming has upended the television advertising model and necessitated new ways of thinking and selling. But creative marketing is only part of the equation. Silverman knows the show's the thing. And that is something that drew him to Tartikoff all those years ago.
“Brandon cared so much about the potential of the content and the entertainment value and connective tissue of the idea, and what it could be to an audience,” he says. “He was just a passionate lover of content and creativity. But he also was a smart businessman, and he knew how to combine fun with good business. He was just really great to be around, too. Really inspiring.”