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That Zucks!

{mosimage}Granted, the TV networks have always been the killing fields for creativity, but camaraderie usually governed the treatment of its executives. So the brazen brutality with which NBC Universal chief executive Jeff Zucker gave Kevin Reilly, his entertainment president, the bum’s rush was the talk of the town all Memorial Day weekend, especially because he tried to keep it secret and couldn’t. Oops.

 

I spoiled Zucker’s best-laid plans by first reporting that on Friday of the holiday weekend he was negotiating in private with 36-year-old prolific producer Ben Silverman to take over NBC’s show-biz duties, all the while keeping Reilly in the dark about his imminent ouster. Hollywood fumed that the well-liked Reilly, who just signed a new three-year contract in March, didn’t even know he was losing his job until he read it on my blog. I sent the entire NBC deal-making team into frantic overdrive, furious about both the leak and my “mean” comments about their execs during a difficult transition.

Then I updated that Sunday to explain that Silverman would get the bigger job title of chairman and share it with Zucker’s Burbank capo Marc Graboff, who as president of NBC Universal Television West Coast had run the business side of things. Finally, and sheepishly, on the Tuesday following Memorial Day, NBC made the announcement that Silverman and Graboff were the new co-chairmen of NBC Entertainment and NBC Universal Television Studio. Later, Mr. Silverman called the weekend “hell” and declared, “I hate the blog world. It ends up interfering with people’s lives. It messes with the process.” Yeah, especially when mismanagement and incompetence are laid bare.

In Hollywood, the truth hurts, which is why it’s so rare.

On the surface, teaming Silverman with grown-up Graboff seemed to neatly solve the problem of Hollywood naysayers who wonder whether Ben has the right stuff to be a network suit, knowing what they do about his high-flyin’ lifestyle. (Silverman’s movable frat house is a fancy private jet. Even his friends use the term “extreme” to describe his habits. And his ex–William Morris Agency colleagues still talk about the time he partied so hearty that his office looked ransacked, with empty beer bottles strewn all over and stuff from his desk dumped on the floor. Silverman later told management that someone broke into his office.)

But a deeper look shows that Silverman is prepared to shake up the failing system of which Graboff has been a chief architect for years. One of the myriad problems at NBC is that its answer to every problem had been to throw gobs of money at it until, that is, parent company General Electric recently closed its wallet.

“The irony here is that Ben, as crazy as he is, is infinitely more responsible with money and deals than Graboff, which is an open secret inside NBC,” a source explained. “Graboff makes the worst deals in town. For this, agents and lawyers like him because they know he can be easily worked.”

TV networks have been known to use psychics to set their prime-time schedules. But I’m convinced that, to save his embattled fourth-place NBC, which is mired with a 2007-2008 prime-time schedule that sucks, Zucker is trying to channel the ghost of the late Brandon Tartikoff, best and boldest programmer in the network’s history, by hiring his protégé Silverman. Already, Zucker has held a little reception on the executive 52nd floor at NBC’s 30 Rock for his new guy. (Did anyone notice that Ben is prone to flop-sweat along the lines of Albert Brooks in Broadcast News?) And Zucker and Silverman made a point of sitting together at the Peabody Awards luncheon at the Waldorf Astoria.

“Ben gave a very smart acceptance speech for Ugly Betty,” a source told me. “Even though the show is ABC’s, at the very end he went, ‘And, oh my gosh, thanks to my new boss Jeff Zucker.’ It was clear he was only doing it to kiss up, and the whole room laughed.”

Silverman got his big break working for the TV legend Tartikoff when he ran New World Entertainment in the early 1990s. He became a wunderkind at William Morris Agency for trend-spotting British shows that could work in the U.S., like Who Wants to Be a Millionaire. Then he started his own production company, Reveille, and grew it into one of those rare suppliers working across all genres (scripted and unscripted) and platforms (network, cable, film). This February, NBC signed Reveille to a first-look deal because of Silverman’s hot programming hand on NBC’s Emmy-winning The Office and ABC’s Golden Globe–winning Ugly Betty as well as NBC’s The Biggest Loser, USA Network’s Nashville Star, Bravo’s Blow Out and more.

Like a moth to a flame, Zucker sought to make Silverman an NBC suit only days after Reilly had presented the network’s fall schedule to advertisers. Just as NBC turned to 30-something Tartikoff in 1981 to bail it out of its bottom feeding when there was turmoil in the executive ranks, a writer’s strike looming and no shows — absolutely no shows — in the top 20, so is NBC turning to 30-something Silverman now to bail it out of its bottom feeding when there is turmoil in the executive ranks, a writer’s strike looming and few shows in the top 20.

I remember my old friend Tartikoff boasting about Ben: “He’s good for the Jews.” Funny, that’s also how Silverman was describing his NBC ascent over Memorial Day weekend to his pals: “It’s good for the Jews.”

Only a Hollywood mogul can say that with impunity. Ben was just channeling Tevye: “In our little village, you might say that every one of us is a fiddler on the roof: trying to scratch out a pleasant, simple tune without breaking his neck. It isn’t easy.”

That’s why I heard from a lot of Hollywood insiders all weekend who thought Silverman would come to his senses and not take the NBC job since it would be like taking a gig on the Titanic. Luckily for the network, he said yes before he’d seen the lamest pilot pickup, a re-imagining of the ’70s hit The Bionic Woman.

One reason my scoop roiled NBC headquarters at 30 Rock and Burbank is that Zucker had to speed up the final negotiations with Ben. But the other damage was that Zucker looked like a putz for the shabby way he’d treated Kevin from start to finish.

Reilly came to NBC as the celebrated FX programming chief responsible for the extreme Nip/Tuck and The Shield. But Reilly found that all NBC wanted to do was save money after pouring too many dollars down the drain on shoulda-woulda-coulda development that didn’t garner ratings.

The churlishness Zucker consistently showed Reilly was childish even for the network playground. Show-biz reporters often found themselves caught in the middle of “he said, she said” debates between their dueling publicists, Corey Shields (Zucker’s protector) and Rebecca Marks (Reilly’s gatekeeper) — an unheard-of situation inside the same entertainment company. Rumors that Reilly was about to get canned emanated mostly from Zucker’s office. They finally stopped only this March when Reilly was re-upped. Who knew Zucker would pay off that new contract less than three months later?

As for NBC’s miseries, when I saw its prime-time plan for next year, I thought: If NBC thinks it’s going to get to No. 1 with this schedule, it’s delusional. For the most part, the shows are way too safe — especially when CBS’s Nancy Tellem is developing edgy programming and ABC’s Steve McPherson campy programming to keep their networks on top. The very idea that there’s no new NBC comedy on the schedule this fall and only one mid-season after eight laugher pilots were ordered demonstrates NBC’s reluctance to roll the dice. This is suicide considering all the cheap schlock airing in the 8 p.m. slot (soon, a Singing Bee crapfest) per Zucker’s orders. Instead of new shows, NBC is stockpiling old ones: 30 episodes of The Office, 25 eps of My Name Is Earl, 30 eps of Heroes and its new spinoff. This is partly out of strike fears and partly to reduce the number of repeats as a strategy to fix this big complaint among viewers.

Needless to say, Madison Avenue hated the sked.

So Zucker needed a fall guy in more ways than one. Ergo Reilly’s ouster despite having produced a bona fide hit show a year (My Name Is Earl, The Office, Heroes) since taking over. Looking back, Reilly predicted his own demise at his May upfront presentation to advertisers when a projection screen behind him showed the words “Big fat disappointment” to describe the horrible season it had been. Soon enough, NBC’s parent company General Electric will be saying the same about Zucker’s fatally flawed tenure.

For more Nikki Finke check out Deadline Hollywood Daily at www.deadlinehollywooddaily.com

Email at deadlinehollywood@gmail.com

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