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The player, page 4

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

With this fall's lineup, Silverman is just now putting his mark on NBC's primetime schedule. It includes Kath & Kim, a Reveille project based on an Australian sitcom, and Robinson Crusoe, a lavishly shot family-friendly drama, for which NBC is sharing costs with co-producers in Britain and Canada.

The drama Friday Night Lights, which faced cancellation because of its small audience, is returning to NBC in January after Silverman struck a deal under which, an insider says, DirecTV (DTV, Fortune 500) pays half the show's costs in exchange for airing it first, exclusively for its subscribers. (DirecTV would not discuss the price.)

Silverman's biggest bet for the season may be My Own Worst Enemy. For that show, he courted General Motors (GM, Fortune 500) and the show's human star, Christian Slater, with equal zeal.

"Ben was just relentless in his pursuit," says Slater. He plays a secret agent who has been brainwashed to spend half the time believing he is someone else, a suburban family man. As the agent, Slater drives a Camaro; his alter ego drives a new Traverse family car.

Dino Bernacchi, GM's director of branded entertainment, says the show would never have happened had Silverman not seen the potential to integrate the cars into the show early in its development. At an NBC party in New York several months ago, Silverman shouted "Buy culture, not advertising!" to Bernacchi, and a high-five ensued.

No matter how far Silverman pushes it, he also knows that product integration or placement or whatever you call it is not the answer to all of NBC's challenges. Greg Daniels, producer of The Office, says that although his show often mentions real products, it has stopped doing product placement because it bogged down the creative process. (Marc Graboff, Silverman's co-chairman at NBC Entertainment, says product placements may yet be back on the show.)

And while marketers and advertisers applaud Silverman's marketer-first approach, some are unsure whether it's working. "Most of the shows have just done okay, but ultimately everyone in that job needs big hits," says Todd Gordon, senior vice president and director of national broadcast for media buyer Initiative.

In any event, Silverman isn't sure that scripted fare is the long-term answer for NBC. "It would be so much easier to improve the lot of the network if I could find an American Idol," he says.

To be fair to Silverman, it took his idol Tartikoff a few seasons to get NBC out of the doldrums he found it in; Silverman is already well into his two-year-contract, and amid endless scuttlebutt about whether he will stay or go, is in negotiations to stay on. "I can't imagine doing this with somebody else," says Zucker. "We're not judging Ben by ratings, and I'd rather be a more profitable No. 2 or 3 than a less profitable No. 1."

He points out that viewing is down for all the networks by traditional measures, and very few new shows appear to be sure hits. (Only one this season, CBS's The Mentalist, has cracked the top ten.) Plus, for years NBC Universal has downplayed primetime as a tiny part of the company, given its tentacles in sports, news, movies, and cable programming.

Indeed, the entertainment division as a whole under Silverman and Graboff is expected to generate more than $300 million in operating profit this year, a jump of more than 40%. According to two insiders, a good portion of that increase comes from a combination of cost cutting, all the new forms of advertising Silverman and his colleagues have been selling, and various jujitsu programming moves that basically amount to doing more with less. Still, primetime, which in NBC's glory days helped the division generate some $900 million in annual profit, continues to lose money.

The hottest star on NBC now is Tina Fey, thanks in part to her turns as Sarah Palin on Saturday Night Live. Her show, 30 Rock, drew six million viewers last year, making it the 114th-most-watched TV show in the land. And yet it cleaned up at the Emmys, with seven awards, including best comedy.

"We are all very, very grateful to have jobs in this turkey burger economy," Fey said when she accepted the award. "30 Rock is available to be viewed on NBC.com, Hulu.com, iTunes, Verizon phones, and United Airlines, and occasionally on actual television." I wondered if Fey was poking fun at what network TV is turning into, but Silverman set me straight. "No, what she said was perfect."  To top of page

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