The player, page 3
I asked Tina Fey, the show's star, if any of the characters in the show, which mercilessly mocks the culture of NBC and its owner, General Electric, are based on Silverman.
"There are probably four," she quickly replied (even though the show actually went on the air a season before Silverman started at NBC). The nearest, she reckoned, is the devious executive Devin Banks, played by Will Arnett, who is trying to outmaneuver Fey's onscreen boss, Alec Baldwin, for the top job at GE.
One day on the set, Fey recalled, Arnett was waiting to shoot a scene and, noting that he was wearing a silver-hued suit, was goofing around: "Look, I'm a silver man - get it?"
Born in Massachusetts, where his mother produced summer theater and his father, a composer, worked at the Tanglewood Music Center in Lenox, Silverman grew up in what he describes as a "salon" environment on Manhattan's Upper West Side near Lincoln Center.
His parents divorced when he was 4. His father remarried (to a violinist), and his mother went on to be a programming executive in the early days of Lifetime and USA Network and worked for BBC television in New York.
Some of Silverman's childhood friends were the offspring of Wall Street tycoons whose wealth made an impression on young Ben: Herman Sandler, the founder of investment bank Sandler O'Neill, who was killed on 9/11 in the World Trade Center, and Steve Friedman, a former chairman of Goldman Sachs.
"I remember going to Steve Friedman's house and seeing his closet and seeing all the suits, color coordinated, and all these blue shirts with his initials on them. I was like, 'Oh, my God, there's efficiency that goes with money,'" Silverman says.
He wanted to do something creative, as his parents did, but he also wanted to make serious money. He soon identified a role model: Brandon Tartikoff, hired in 1981 at age 31 to turn around NBC's sagging fortunes. Tartikoff, who died in 1997, led NBC to a golden era of ratings dominance with such hits as The Cosby Show, Cheers, Hill Street Blues, Miami Vice, and, yes, the original Knight Rider.
Silverman told his friends and family that he would one day run NBC. When New York magazine profiled Tartikoff in 1985, his mother remembers that Ben, then 15, toted the article everywhere and complained to her that "Brandon Tartikoff's mother let him stay home from school to watch TV."
While majoring in history at Tufts University, Silverman recalls, he wrote a paper about how he would work for Tartikoff someday. After graduating, Silverman moved to L.A. and worked as an intern at CBS until an independent TV producer named Barbara Corday hired him as her assistant at her small office on the Warner Bros. lot. She promoted him to be her development assistant on his first day on the job.
"As they say about a script, he just kind of leaped off the page at me," says Corday. A few months later Corday was recruited to be president of New World Television, a midsized production and distribution business owned by financier Ronald Perlman. Through a neat twist of fate, soon afterward Tartikoff was brought in to run New World, and Silverman ended up working under his idol for two years.
In 1995, Silverman took a job at the William Morris Agency in London. There he made a splash by helping adapt European show formats to the U.S., including Who Wants to Be a Millionaire (ABC) and Survivor (CBS). In 2002 he left William Morris to found Reveille, his own packaging and production company, with an investment of $10 million from Barry Diller's USA Networks. The investment was arranged via Michael Jackson (not that one!), a veteran British broadcaster Diller had hired to run his TV interests, who had known Silverman in London.
One of the ideas behind Reveille was to capitalize on Silverman's international connections to build a distribution network for selling rights to shows around the world. Reveille took The Office from the BBC to NBC, and Ugly Betty, an adaptation of a Colombian telenovela, to ABC. It also developed The Tudors for Showtime, Nashville Star for USA, the NBC reality show The Restaurant, and MTV's Date My Mom, among others.
In 2004, USA Networks was sold to NBC as part of its merger with the film and TV businesses of Vivendi Universal. For a brief moment NBC absorbed Diller's stake, but Silverman worked out an arrangement under which he gained USA Networks' 75% of Reveille in exchange for giving NBC a "first look" deal worth several million dollars.
Then Diller invested more than $15 million in a second Reveille fund through the auspices of his IAC/InteractiveCorp (IACI, Fortune 500). This time they were fifty-fifty partners, but NBC bought out IAC's share when Silverman joined the network. Because Silverman wanted to hold on to Reveille, still another fund was set up within the company in which only the remaining Reveille employees would have a financial interest, and Silverman none.
The purpose of this confusing construct was ostensibly to shield NBC and Silverman from the appearance of self-dealing - and to be doubly sure, Zucker decreed that any Reveille show orders had to be approved personally by him.
Still, the first few months of Silverman's tenure were marked by questions when NBC ordered several shows from his old shop. "Ben didn't do himself any favors," says one network insider. "It caused so many problems and rumors and animosities."
Zucker says he wasn't bothered. "The fact is, we hired Ben for his sensibility, and his sensibility was developed at Reveille," he says. Still, Silverman says, all the rumblings about Reveille prompted him to sell the company to Rupert Murdoch's daughter Elisabeth's British-based production company, Shine.