He Followed Madison Ave. to the Top of the Rock

Silverman's Rep as Marketer-Friendly Producer May May Come in Handy Turning Around NBC's Fortunes

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NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- Want to know where Madison and Vine intersect? Ask Ben Silverman.

The rampantly successful young producer, who was just named co-chairman of NBC Entertainment and NBC Universal Television Studio, has built his career on paying attention to advertising as well as entertainment. And marketers expect he'll spot lots more places where TV producers and marketers can cross paths from his new perch.
Ben Silverman, co-chairman of NBC Entertainment and NBC Universal Television Studio, made his name by creating advertiser-friendly programs, a skill that will come in quite handy at the Peacock network.
Ben Silverman, co-chairman of NBC Entertainment and NBC Universal Television Studio, made his name by creating advertiser-friendly programs, a skill that will come in quite handy at the Peacock network. Credit: Mitchell Haaseth

Under pressure
Mr. Silverman, 36, is undoubtedly on the hot seat in his new gig, given the ratings challenges at NBC's broadcast network. (Just ask outgoing Entertainment President Kevin Reilly.) But at a time when marketers are clamoring for new ways to link their ad messages to specific programs -- even particular moments in a show -- Mr. Silverman's experience may prove more relevant than that of more seasoned network suits.

Thanks to stints at the William Morris Agency, New World/Marvel Entertainment, CBS and Warner Brothers, Mr. Silverman brings the usual set of skills to the job, but what makes him different from his predecessors is his experience catering to advertisers -- and the fact that he's always seemed to be the rare entertainment exec who actually enjoys spending time on Madison Avenue.

"When you look at Ben's pedigree -- it's very interesting," said Laura Caraccioli-Davis, a senior VP at Publicis Groupe's Starcom USA. "He worked at William Morris, so he gets the talent side of the equation. Then he worked a lot with Madison Avenue, so he understands that side of the equation. I don't think we've had a person who's worked both sides in [a programming] position. He can be a friend to many."

Tough road
He will have to wear his best smile. While the Peacock network continues to offer programs that appeal to the urbane, high-income crowd Madison Avenue covets, many of the shows aren't powerhouses in the ratings department. Some media buyers were disappointed by the slate of programs -- a remake of "Bionic Woman," for example -- NBC unveiled at its upfront presentation.

"We were just surprised we didn't see a more aggressive programming approach on their part," said Steve Calder, executive media director at Mediahub, a media-services unit of Interpublic Group's Mullen agency. "For a network that was down as significantly as they are, we were surprised to see so few fresh ideas."

Fresh ideas have been Mr. Silverman's stock in trade, and he'll need them. These days, it's not enough to run a 30-second spot in the space between program segments. More often, the ads have to be part of the show and its digital extensions -- a Chrysler car featured prominently in the final episode of the first season of "The Apprentice" or a mention in a blog entry by one of the characters from "Heroes."

Mr. Silverman is "a very progressive thinker and somebody who can really make things happen," says John Hayes, exec VP-chief marketing officer of American Express. "My guess is we'll see changes."

Making a mark
After founding independent production company Reveille in March 2002, he quickly became a well-known Hollywood name who very early on realized marketers looking for more engaging advertising could also help fund the development of new shows. At NBC, he has already begun to make his presence known, involving himself in NBC's decision late last week to look for new ways to keep Mark Burnett and Donald Trump's "The Apprentice" at the network -- something of a bold decision given the program's less-than-stellar ratings last season.

In 2003, Mr. Silverman really focused attention on the idea of having advertisers build programs, such as "The Restaurant." American Express, Mitsubishi and Coors were all overtly featured in the show. In the past, products placed in programs through ad deals were often integrated discreetly. Mr. Silverman's efforts have helped show that consumers will watch shows where products get center stage.

To be certain, "The Restaurant" drew its fair share of criticism, too. "It was a very positive experience, but the balance between the commercial and the entertainment content was something we had to learn as we went along," American Express' Mr. Hayes said.

Mr. Silverman also has developed a knack for creating TV shows that resonate online, another asset he brings to NBC Universal. Episodes of "The Office" have fared well as top downloads on iTunes. "The Biggest Loser," which Mr. Silverman co-created, generated millions of dollars of incremental revenue through an online dieting community.

Undecided factor
One job Mr. Silverman has not yet done is programming chief at a major TV network, and the jury is out on whether a young, independent producer can make a go of it at a network best known for powerhouse fare such as "Friends" and "Frasier." That may explain why NBC has paired him with a more seasoned programming exec, Marc Graboff. Whether Mr. Silverman's network career is as storied as Brandon Tartikoff's or as troubled as that of Jamie Tarses remains to be seen.

He does bring a lot of enthusiasm to the position. During a conference call last week soon after he was named to the job, he called his new post "a dream job for me. This is what I've always wanted to do."

Mr. Silverman also brings something else with him: a potential safety net. As part of the deal, NBC is keeping open its relationship with Reveille, which is expanding a "first-look" deal it struck with NBC's broadcast network and cable properties for all of its scripted and unscripted projects. Executives said NBC had not considered purchasing Reveille -- the production company behind NBC's "The Office" and ABC's "Ugly Betty" -- and that the production shop would remain independent and be run by other executives going forward. The shop will "service all of its existing shows as it has previously and see those through as well as generate new ideas to bring to NBC," Mr. Silverman said during last week's conference call.

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Contributing: Andrew Hampp
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