The Ben Silverman Experiment Ends
Here’s the e-mail that Ben Silverman sent to Hollywood pals announcing his exit from NBC Universal and landing at Barry Diller’s IAC: “Its [sic] go time brother!!!!!!! Let’s rock it out!!!!!” Is there any wonder that everyone at his old workplace collectively thought, Don’t let the door hit you on the way out?
Yes, on July 27, Silverman did announce a new company, with IAC, which will produce content for distribution across a variety of platforms around the world. “This will be the industry’s first global platform that connects advertisers, distributors and content creators early on in the development process, enabling advertisers to be a partner in campaigns and content creation,” the press release hype insisted. “NBC Universal will continue to have a relationship with Mr. Silverman via the new venture through platform partnerships and a potential investment in the enterprise. IAC will provide initial capital to the venture.”
But way more amusing was how Silverman’s now ex-boss, Jeff Zucker, couldn’t find one positive, specific thing to say about Ben in the official NBCU news release that same morning, beyond, “Ben brought us tremendous new thinking in this changing media age.”
Yet Silverman leaves behind a record of abject failure, and some really talented NBCU executives were let go in a vainglorious attempt to prop up this dumb ass.
All that time his co-chairman of NBC Entertainment and Universal Media Studios Marc Graboff had to play the adult while Silverman acted like an unruly child. All that time Graboff kept the trains running while Silverman screwed up. Yet Graboff now humiliatingly has to report to NBCU’s new fair-haired boy Jeff Gaspin, named chairman of NBCU Television Entertainment.
In short, Graboff got Zuckered, just like the rest of NBCU, because The Ben Silverman Experiment tanked.
Silverman finally let boss Zucker off the hook for a hiring decision that will go down in the annals of television entertainment as one of the worst.
I knew back on June 24 that Silverman was desperately searching for another job or financial backing so he could make it look like he’d jumped while he was pushed. I also knew he was telling Hollywood between July 21-23 that he’d be leaving NBCU “in two or three weeks.”
But Silverman had done that, and said that, several times in recent months. It wasn’t until late Friday that Barry Diller’s name was whispered to me as Silverman’s savior (Diller helped to bankroll Ben’s Reveille start-up, too.) And each time I contacted NBCU, executives there lied to me. (NBCU says the deal came together “quicker than expected” and “only this past weekend,” and then Silverman, IAC and NBCU “scrambled to get this together” before the market opened Monday.)
I can pinpoint almost exactly when NBCU was fed up with Ben. It was May 13, when I received a 10 p.m. e-mail from NBCU PR about eight hours after I’d posted a video of Ben Silverman singing and dancing wearing only a towel in an Aspen locker room. The NBCU flack asked me to remove the video from my DeadlineHollywoodDaily.com. I said no. The flack pushed. I pushed back. And the video stayed up.
I found out the order had come from Jeff Zucker himself. Zucker was terrified that the video would be mentioned in a major New York Times article on Silverman set for May 17. It wasn’t mentioned. NBCU’s spin control had worked its magic on the mainstream media. Everything I’d reported since I broke the news in May 2007 that Kevin Reilly had been fired and Ben hired by Zucker was ignored by major newspapers and magazines: Ben’s drugs and drunkenness, missed meetings, AWOL periods, schlock programming, conflicts of interests with Reveille, expensive flops, and so on.
But on May 17, not even Zucker could ignore the NYT headline: “NBC Hired A Hit Maker. It’s Still Waiting.”
On June 24, I reported that Zucker was privately pledging “imminent changes” at NBC. He implied that they involved Silverman. Zucker already had quietly moved him out of NBC Entertainment and Universal Media Studios business and into NBCU corporate marketing to focus on advertising-related business.
“No one will acknowledge it, but Ben is out of the [entertainment] picture,” one source explained to me. “Instead, he’s doing marketing for the corporate side.” Agreed another of my sources, “He’s not involved in pitches, development or scheduling. The running joke you hear often is that he’s a ‘glorified ad salesman.’ ”
Yes, Ben was out. He also had been desperately seeking financial backing on Wall Street for a new start-up but was turned down almost everywhere. And he’d been desperately seeking a job: with ITV in the U.K., with Elizabeth Murdoch who now owned his Reveille. NBCU kept telling me Silverman was staying put, even when on July 23, Ben was telling Hollywood pals that his departure was “in two to three weeks.”
Looking back, Zucker never did his due diligence before putting Silverman in the big NBCU job. Zucker had no idea Ben was a well-known Hollywood drug-taker and drunkard. In fact, after I first reported on June 15, 2007, about Silverman’s party-hearty, drug-taking ways, Zucker dispatched a top-level NBCU exec to find out if it was true. When the answer came back, “yes,” Zucker gave Silverman a stern talking-to along the lines of: “I never want to be embarrassed by anything you do.”
Yet during his tenure Silverman embarrassed Zucker over and over.
I reported on August 18, 2007, that network personnel were getting fed up with Ben. The story was so dead-on, describing Silverman’s abominable behavior, that Zucker demanded a search to determine the source of the NBC leaks. The next day, an internal kudos e-mail went out to NBCU under the names of Silverman and Graboff, which was intended to tell the tattletellers, sub rosa, Ben has heard your complaints.
Next, Zucker assembled a roundtable of mainstream Los Angeles–based journalists for an off-the-record session to “counter” my story. Counter, but not deny. Zucker told them that lots of excellent executives have used drugs or alcohol to excess. He didn’t specify Silverman, but the implication was clear.
There followed rounds of positive press for Ben Silverman — in The New York Times, in Fortune. When Vanity Fair wrote a spoof of next season’s NBC nighttime schedule, one parody was supposed to be titled, “Where in the World is Ben Silverman?” But that was changed because Ben is Graydon Carter’s pal. None of the pieces ever mentioned any of the problems I cited.
Silverman laughed off the allegations, telling the New York Television Festival that month that, “I may be the Paris Hilton of NBC, that’s what our head of HR says, but the fact is, I am so committed to the job . ... ” Later, he noted: “We live in a world where our politicians lie to us, our celebrities lie to us and our CEOs lie to us.”
So long, Ben. You were the gift that kept on giving to me. I’ll miss you.
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