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The player, page 2

By Richard Siklos, editor at large
October 27, 2008: 1:49 PM ET

Nearly every new show he is putting on the air this fall owes as much to its ability to attract underwriting as it does to entertainment value. Two of NBC's big new fall dramas - Knight Rider and My Own Worst Enemy - feature Ford and General Motors products as de facto characters in the shows.

The method has not, so far, produced hits. For the first few weeks of the new TV season, NBC was stuck in third place and had no entertainment programs ranked in the top 20 most-watched shows. In the week ended Oct. 12, though, measured by shows with the most product placements, it had four of the top ten spots.

But if NBC's new shows haven't generated a lot of buzz, Silverman himself has, with a persona that seems equal measures Ferris Bueller and Sean "P. Diddy" Combs. Last year he threw a bash in a rented mansion featuring a caged white tiger to greet guests. In meetings he has been known to pull out dinner chimes and play NBC's trademark three-note call sign when he hears something he likes.

He's a contributing editor to women's magazine Marie Claire who wears custom-made T-shirts emblazoned with "handpicked," one of his favorite words. He's not only like a character in HBO's Entourage, but recently performed a cameo on the show, playing himself. Silverman volunteers that one of his colleagues calls him "the Paris Hilton of NBC."

Ryan Seacrest, host of American Idol and a Silverman pal, observes, "I think that Ben knows the rules but doesn't always play by them."

The chatter around Silverman also includes anecdotes about blowing off meetings, office absences, squishy business dealings, and party-animal behavior, all of which he denies. One person who works closely with him described Silverman to me as "undisciplined"; another called him a "big puppy dog" - and these are people who admire him.

Others in Hollywood roll their eyes and portray him as a skilled salesman and packager who lacks the creative vision to restore the glory that NBC knew when it was on top with shows like Seinfeld, Friends, Frasier, and The West Wing.

Silverman has invited some of the criticism, perhaps, with a cavalier, off-the-cuff style. Dick Wolf, creator of the hugely successful Law & Order franchise and its offshoots for NBC, was livid after Silverman invited him to a meeting and then failed to show up, two of Wolf's associates say. (He declined to comment, but Silverman says there is no beef between them and notes that NBC recently ordered a new pilot from Wolf's company.)

Similarly, in the Universal Studios commissary, Silverman got into a heated - and much chattered about - argument with Ari Emanuel, the powerful head of the Endeavor Talent Agency, who took him to task for purportedly missing meetings.

Last year Silverman labeled his predecessor at NBC, Kevin Reilly (who now runs programming at Fox), and Steve McPherson, the top programmer at ABC, "D-girls" - a somewhat derogatory industry term for young women who work developing shows with hopes of moving up the network apparatus.

In a similar vein, when I asked him why he didn't seem concerned that NBC trailed its rivals in viewers, he explained that conventional ratings are obsolete: "The audience that watches my show goes to the theater and goes to dinner and owns DVRs. Their audience watches through an antenna."

Some of Silverman's cockiness comes with the knowledge that since building his production company, Reveille - and then selling it earlier this year for around $125 million - he doesn't need the job. He's there because running NBC was his childhood dream.

"Ben is one of those unique characters who attracts attention," says Zucker. "He's young, single, wealthy, and beautiful. There are a lot of reasons to be jealous of Ben before you even put him in this job."

The night before the Emmy Awards, Silverman was at the Chateau Marmont hotel with an entourage that included his mother, Mary, and his girlfriend, Jennifer. At a party celebrating the numerous nominations for the NBC sitcom 30 Rock, he smiled broadly and posed for photos with cast members.

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