Ben Silverman's field of vision extends well beyond U.S. borders, and he has the passport stamps to prove it. The founder and CEO of production/distribution company Reveille, he jump-started reality TV in the U.S. while heading up the William Morris Agency's London office, bringing over hits like Who Wants To Be a Millionaire and Survivor. Now Silverman continues to look far and wide for reality fare that he says represents the evolution of the genre—such shows as current Reveille projects 30 Days, Bound for Glory and The Biggest Loser.
“I'm seeing a shift away from traditional reality-based elimination shows,” Silverman says, “and a lot more shows that engage the audience and let them play along.”
Even while growing up in Manhattan, there was little doubt in Silverman's mind what industry he'd pursue. The son of a composer father and TV-executive mother (a veteran of the BBC and Court TV), Silverman was raised on programs such as M*A*S*H, St. Elsewhere and Cheers, and he held summer jobs at companies including Warner Bros.
“I've always loved television, media and the arts,” he says. “I wanted to be in the entertainment business from the first time I saw a Fred Astaire film at the Regency Theatre in Manhattan and tap-danced in the aisle.”
REPORTING TO TARTIKOFF
Silverman, 35, entered entertainment full time just after graduating from Tufts University in 1992. After working at CBS, he was lucky enough to be taken under the wing of Brandon Tartikoff at New World Entertainment in 1993. “I was a 23-year-old kid reporting to the chairman,” says Silverman. “I learned a ton.”
He parlayed that knowledge into an agenting gig with William Morris in 1995 and met with considerable success: He was the youngest division head at the company, running international packaging. He was picked to head up the London office in 1997, where he earned a reputation as a creative deal-closer.
While Silverman credits his agent days with shaping the sales skills he relies on now as an independent producer, he yearned to have a larger impact on the shows he was pitching and launched Reveille—founded as a partnership with USA Entertainment—in spring 2002. “I wanted to see through the execution as well, because I'd seen a lot of ideas I was representing not come to fruition for various reasons,” he says. “I wanted a more principal role.”
Reveille's first splash was The Restaurant, the reality show that depicted the frenetic launch of a New York eatery and the tempestuous relationship between partners Rocco DiSpirito and Jeffrey Chodorow. The show was financed entirely by advertisers—American Express, Coors and Mitsubishi—whose products appeared liberally on the program. Once again, Silverman was thinking a few steps ahead.
With a long string of hits under his belt, Silverman is focusing on how best to take advantage of platforms like broadband and mobile TV. He recently did a deal involving NBC, weight-loss show The Biggest Loser and book publisher Rodale to develop a subscription service where viewers receive diet tips and fitness routines online and on their cellphones; he sees this as a model for other programs.
“It's an example of a show being a multiplatform show,” Silverman says. “We'll continue to work with advertisers and develop things just for alternative distribution mechanisms.”
Silverman—also the executive producer of MTV's Date My Mom and Spike's The Club—continues to rack up frequent-flier miles to stay on top of the trends. Based in Los Angeles, he has recently flown to New York; Moscow; London; Paris and Cannes, France; and Amsterdam—all in an effort to rise above the stale thinking he says exists in Hollywood. “Our employees travel all over the world,” he observes, “and that gives us a big advantage.”
Michael Jackson, former chairman/CEO of USA Entertainment, says that Silverman has a knack for finding compelling material where others might not look.
“Ben's smart enough to look outside the Hollywood box,” says Jackson. “The people he's in touch with are the pathfinders.”
While he also produces scripted fare such as The Office, Silverman says he'll continue to create reality TV, pushing the genre toward “unique characters and strong storytelling” and away from common devices like voting out a housemate. He believes he has found some innovative angles with the character-driven Blow Out, about a celebrity stylist, and Morgan Spurlock's 30 Days, which tackles domestic issues such as prejudice and poverty.
Super Size Me director Spurlock says Silverman has a winning mix of industry savvy and street smarts.
“He knows all the major players at the networks and has all the right partners,” Spurlock says. “He's incredibly intelligent about what works on television and astute about what he can and can't sell.”
RECALLING TARTIKOFF'S WISDOM
While his hectic schedule doesn't allow for much leisure activity, Silverman unwinds by rooting for the Red Sox, watching Curb Your Enthusiasm and Extras, and making a little free time for himself while on the road. “My favorite hobby is walking through cities,” he says.
As he considers future projects, Silverman recalls words of wisdom passed along by Tartikoff: “Only do what you love in terms of creative choices. If you don't like it creatively, don't do it because you think you can sell it. The business is reliant on passion.”