The Donald Returns to NBC -- and Could Have Celebs in Tow

At TCA: Silverman Says Net's Working on For-Charity Version of 'Apprentice'

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BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. ( -- The shop-worn aphorism that "the more things change, the more they stay the same" was on particular display at NBC this morning, where newly hired NBC Universal Entertainment Co-Chairman Ben Silverman showed he has been working feverishly to keep in place key franchises even as he seeks to create new ones at the fourth-place broadcast network.
Ben Silverman
Ben Silverman

Mr. Silverman, speaking today at the Television Critics Association's summer press tour, confirmed that a deal to keep the high-haired Donald Trump at NBC had been reached -- and that a new "celebrity" for-charity version of his reality show "The Apprentice" was in the works for the fall.

Roping in Rosie?
(Left unaddressed, the obvious question: If your agent allows you to appear on "The Apprentice: Celebrity Edition," can you really be considered a celebrity at all?) With a straight face, Mr. Silverman even dangled Trump nemesis Rosie O'Donnell as a possible celeb "Apprentice" contestant.

Could he even be serious? Rosie the Mongoose tossed into the same pillowcase as Trump the Cobra? As reporters surreptitiously speed-dialed reps for Ms. O'Donnell, the ex-William Morris agent Mr. Silverman was already busy launching into his next litany of deals: Jerry Seinfeld to guest star on "30 Rock"! Norman Lear, that Odysseus of prime time, to again supervise a new one-hour battle-of-the-sexes comedy! Disgraced "Grey's Anatomy" star Isaiah Washington to join the cast of "Bionic Woman"!

Then there's Mr. Silverman's first-look deal with Charles Corwin, red-hot indie producer of "Half Nelson" and "The Squid and the Whale." And his plan to bring Israeli mentalist Uri Geller ("The Successor") to prime time. (Another unanswered question: If Mr. Geller's really psychic, isn't he the better choice to pick the new NBC shows?)

If much of the press pooh-poohs Mr. Silverman as a slick-suited repackager of shows already in success, and not a true creative-development executive, it's not without good cause. His production company, Reveille, sold NBC the U.K. "The Office" and gave ABC "Ugly Betty." And his first move as NBC co-chairman was to buy the rights to the hit Colombian telenovela "Sin Tetas no Hay Paraiso" ("Without Breasts There Is No Paradise"). He's also holding out hope that "Kath and Kim," a bawdy Australian retread produced and owned by his Reveille, might appear on NBC's summer schedule. (Because "Kath and Kim" predates his arrival at NBC and he retains a stake in it, Mr. Silverman will not have final say on its pickup.)

The other criticism
The other knock on Mr. Silverman is that he is inherently conflicted because of his continued ownership of Reveille. As Kim Masters wrote in her online column in Slate last week, "Silverman is supposed to be in a sort of blind-trust relationship with the company and is not supposed to profit from decisions he makes as an NBC exec. The idea is that while he keeps the money from existing Reveille shows, he gets nothing from shows that Reveille places on NBC's schedule in the future. The issue is: When does the future begin?"

One show that's changing the definition of the word "future" as it relates to Mr. Silverman is "American Gladiators," the Reveille-owned cavalcade of well-oiled, padded combatants that might soon reappear on NBC after NFL football. It had been floated as a show to follow "Sunday Night Football" under Kevin Reilly's administration, but languished. Marc Graboff, Mr. Silverman's co-chair, speaking from the stage next to Mr. Silverman, was circumspect, cautioning that "there is no deal [for 'American Gladiators']."

As in no deal, yet.

And so the difference between the NBC of this year's press tour and its fictional cousin, NBS, on "Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip," is on stark display. In the Aaron Sorkin show's portrayal of a press tour, print reporters all have exceedingly white teeth, and bare them often, but network-TV executives are ever-ready to offer witty, candid ripostes to the blows they've just parried.

Tough first question
Would that it were actually so. The opening question tossed out to newly installed entertainment co-chairman: "What do you think about a company that pays an executive $6 million and fires him a month later?" The questioning reporter then added, "Is that a good company?"

Mr. Silverman was taken aback, but he managed to stay on message, gamely saying he had only just arrived and couldn't address the regime of his predecessor, Kevin Reilly -- the NBC capo largely responsible for Mr. Silverman's success as a producer of hit shows like "The Biggest Loser" and "The Office." (Mr. Reilly is now in a similar role at News Corp.'s Fox, working with entertainment head Peter Liguori.)

Mr. Graboff didn't exactly offer a surfeit of candor about their predecessor, either.

"Let me address that if I could," Mr. Graboff said in a helpful and serious tone, "because I think you're obviously referring to Kevin Reilly, and I just want to kind of hit that on the head a bit. He wasn't fired."

The press room perked up, eager for clarification.

"What happened was when Ben became available, about three months after we made Kevin's new deal, we jumped at the opportunity to bring Ben on board to the company. Kevin, when that happened, realized or determined, frankly, that there was just no role for him at the company and decided to move on."

At this, the entire press corps burst into laughter.
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