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Up Next: Major Messy NBC Shakeup 

Network Wants Ben Silverman to Quit as Soon as Possible

Wednesday, Sep 3 2008
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HERE’S A NETWORK SCENARIO Tina Fey probably won’t work into 30 Rock. After weeks of checking out rumor after rumor, I’ve finally pinned down details of the long-overdue shakeup that’s ahead for NBC when this fall’s prime-time schedule shapes up to be an unmitigated disaster.

Someone has to shoulder the responsibility, and both Ben Silverman and the Reveille development exec he brought with him to NBC, Teri Weinberg, now deservedly have big, fat targets on their foreheads. Staying in charge will be Marc Graboff and Katherine Pope, who both have been trying to keep NBC up and running while Weinberg continually fucks up and Silverman regularly goes AWOL.

For instance, last Thursday was Silverman’s first day in the office all month after attending the Beijing Olympics and guesting aboard Elisabeth Murdoch’s yacht. (Murdoch’s Shine Group bought Silverman’s Reveille productions, which put $60 million-plus directly into his pocket.) But a pressing issue has been Silverman’s partying ways, especially his excessive off-hours lifestyle, which has prompted complaints from Hollywood’s TV community. “When he’s around, he is totally engaged and focused and not in an altered state of consciousness. But that’s when he’s around. Literally, he has not been around from August 1 until August 28, and you can’t run a network-programming group and not be around for the month of August,” an insider tells me.

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Back in May 2007, I broke the story that NBC Universal boss Jeff Zucker was unceremoniously firing NBC Entertainment president Kevin Reilly, and surprisingly hiring Silverman to be partnered with Graboff as co-chairman of NBC Entertainment and NBC Universal Television Studio. It was a very risky move by Zucker, not helped by his cluelessness about Silverman’s drug and alcohol habits until it became a real drama whether Silverman could pass the mandatory corporate drug test for prospective employees.

But TV circles were just as confounded a week later when I scooped that Silverman had hired his Reveille gal Weinberg to be the new EVP of NBC Entertainment. She had been his glorified gofer until just a few years ago, then his Reveille development exec. Now she was in charge of comedy, drama and everything below Silverman and Graboff at NBC Entertainment. At the time, Weinberg’s appointment was seen as a major mistake.

Since then, Weinberg has been a train wreck. “With Ben not involved in the day-to-day, Teri was too inexperienced to be thrown into the deep end of running a broadcast network with no experience. Yet Ben kept delegating it all to her. It became a huge, huge job, which she’s just not qualified for,” one insider explained to me.

Last week, NBC took the unusual, almost unprecedented step of canceling an exclusive contract for a team of TV writer-producers, paying them off to the tune of millions of dollars, and letting them take back every one of their projects developed at the network.

The reason is that one of the show runners was Weinberg’s live-in boyfriend.

Here’s what I’ve been told by several knowledgeable sources: It’s not that the boyfriend, Marc Abrams, and his colleague Michael Benson weren’t qualified. They’d been writer-producers on both The Bernie Mac Show and Entourage. It’s that Weinberg secured for them an exclusive multimillion overall deal at NBC.

Weinberg was specifically warned not to get involved in their business because of the personal relationship. “Other TV writer-producers began assuming that every decision Teri made was influenced by her relationship with her boyfriend’s company,” a source told me. “If she didn’t buy something of theirs, they complained she was protecting her boyfriend’s pitch. The truth is that this appearance of a conflict was really starting to hurt NBC’s business.” Echoed another source: “NBC couldn’t deal with the conflict of interest anymore, so Zucker told Graboff to terminate the deal. And the network last week wrote a fat check for the whole amount of the contract even though it still had a year and a half to go, and they gave the guys all their projects back, which they’re now free to shop.”

As for Silverman, I’m told NBC was impressed that his relationships with advertisers put “several hundred millions of dollars” of additional revenue into the network’s 2008/2009 upfront sales. But that doesn’t offset the fact that Silverman is widely seen as a major disappointment. “If only NBC could take the good of Ben and ignore the bad of Ben,” one insider put it.

 

THE LAUNDRY LIST OF SILVERMAN’S faults reached critical mass after he began negotiating to sell Reveille and knew he would soon have the proverbial “fuck-you money” to tell Zucker to take the NBC job and shove it. The whispers about Silverman’s off-duty behavior became loud chatter, when he was drunk and disorderly at this year’s Super Bowl, where he notoriously made a fool of himself with NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

That capped a period during which Silverman began missing meetings, canceling appointments and forgetting callbacks, allegedly because of too many late nights when he had partied hearty. For some time, Endeavor talent agency owner Ari Emanuel had been counseling his pal to tone down this over-the-top behavior — like last spring, when both men were attending a cancer-research benefit dinner where more than one eyewitness confirmed to me that Silverman appeared to be “high as a kite.” Emanuel reminded Silverman that the very next morning there was a big meeting about an important piece of Marvel Studios business between Endeavor and NBC, and Emanuel warned Silverman not to be late. The next day, Silverman was a no-show.

Though Endeavor does 75 percent of its TV business with NBC, Emanuel didn’t hesitate to complain directly to Zucker — and the conversation focused on Silverman’s overindulgence with alcohol and drugs. Alarmed, Zucker instructed Universal boss Ron Meyer to determine if Silverman still wanted to work at NBC. As it happened, Meyer took Silverman to lunch at the studio at the same time Emanuel was there with Uni film chief Marc Shmuger.

In full view of everyone, a shouting match ensued: Silverman belligerently blamed Emanuel for getting him in trouble with his boss, Emanuel aggressively shot back that it was justified, and neither man backed down. Meanwhile, at lunch with Meyer, Silverman said he wasn’t interested in quitting despite his newfound fortune, so Meyer reported that back to Zucker.

Silverman by all accounts shaped up and buckled down for weeks after. But then his work ethic became erratic again.

To be fair to Silverman, attending the Beijing Olympics was a command performance for all NBC and GE brass. But almost every other top TV executive would have hurried back after a week, tops, to supervise production of the fall schedule. There’s general agreement that the one scripted NBC show that looks good is Kings, and the rest are going to be ratings disasters. Adding to this notion that the network’s prime-time is in creative free fall are repeated reshoots (like on Kath and Kim) and show runners stepping down or being pushed aside (like on My Own Worst Enemy, the Christian Slater series). That Silverman chose to stay away despite all this speaks volumes about his lack of commitment to his job. And that he was vacationing with Elisabeth Murdoch was like a shout-out to the TV community that he’s looking for a graceful way out.

I’m told that NBC is hoping Silverman jumps before he is pushed. His contract, like Weinberg’s, expires next summer. But Silverman’s posse is letting it be known that he may start negotiating his out before December. His reasoning, according to insiders, is that if by some miracle this fall’s prime-time schedule succeeds, he’d like to go out “a hero.” And if it tanks, he doesn’t want to go out “a failure” and get fired.

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