'Knight Rider' Reborn, Pilots Killed Off

NBC's Ben Silverman Hopes Talking Car Is Fix for Broken TV Model

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LOS ANGELES (AdAge.com) -- Kitt, the car star of the 1980s hit series "Knight Rider," is set for a return to our screens next month with the Mustang Shelby GT500KR as the hero. The re-emergence of the talking auto, in an NBC two-hour movie special on Feb. 17, will test not only whether audiences still have an appetite for the Hoff-mobile but how far Ben Silverman has come in his mission to rewrite the TV business model as we've known it.
Ben Silverman, co-chairman of NBC Entertainment
Ben Silverman, co-chairman of NBC Entertainment Credit: Mitchell Haaseth

For the networks that model has long involved commissioning dozens of expensive pilots, picking up and screening the best of them during upfront week in a bid to get advertisers to back the untested shows, and then hoping after hope that they catch on with audiences. But this year, with the writers strike as added impetus, Mr. Silverman, the 37-year-old co-chairman of NBC Entertainment, is shifting rapidly away from that old, expensive and increasingly moribund system. While he's still got a couple original scripted shows on his slate, he is relying heavily on reprising former favorites such as "Knight Rider," as well as shows that have been audience-tested overseas, and he's using "specials" as his pilots.

"I've never viewed the pilot season as anything but incredibly flawed," Mr. Silverman said. "When you'd approach advertisers, it was hard to get them to commit because it's done in such a speculative manner. Then the strike happened, and it's going to hasten the change."

Ejecting the pilot
In Hollywood, the odd effort to create a show from a special is known as a "backdoor pilot"; if it succeeds, it gets a more robust commitment from the network. But Mr. Silverman said he isn't interested in merely opening that backdoor -- he wants to rip it from the hinges. He pointed to other forthcoming NBC shows based on pre-existing material ("American Gladiators," Candace Bushnell's "Lipstick Jungle" and "The Office" to name a few) as the blueprint for how he plans to upend the traditionally wasteful Hollywood tradition of producing dozens of costly pilots that never air.

"We're taking a page from the movie business," Mr. Silverman said. In point of fact, Mr. Silverman is taking a page from his old job as a packager of shows while he was an agent at William Morris, where he helped sell "Survivor." That's likely good news for advertisers who don't want to gamble on untested material; it's good news for holders of underlying rights; it could even be good news for NBC bean counters, provided enough of these as-seen-before shows are successful. But it's a less-than-rosy pronouncement for TV writers schlepping spec scripts -- yet again prompting the question of whether the writers strike will end up hurting more than it helps.

"Knight Rider" also showcases Mr. Silverman's experience finding shows that yield strong brand-integration opportunities, another way in which all the major broadcast networks have looked to offset the sizable risk they take in commissioning shows. With the increasing range of brand-integration opportunities and the demise of the pilot season and upfront, Mr. Silverman is envisaging a 365-day-a-year TV ad market and closer cooperation between network and advertisers. "It's essential," he said, "that we initiate dialogue with ad partners early and throughout the process." In that vein, he added that if "Knight Rider" is reordered as a fall series, Ford would again be a prominent sponsor, in much the same way it backs "American Idol."

Fleeing viewers
Meanwhile, NBC is still facing a promotion conundrum: On the one hand, with a dearth of new content available due to the writers strike, "Knight Rider" could do exceptionally well with audiences starved for scripted material. On the other, the general flight from prime time means that promoting "Knight" presents its own special set of difficulties: If the writers strike drags on into the spring, viewership at broadcast networks is expected to decline on average 9% from January through May, according to estimates by agency Magna Global.

Vince Manze, president-program planning, scheduling and strategy for NBC Entertainment, noted that "it probably will take more outside marketing if the [ratings] numbers dip."

The strike has already deflated NBC's original plan to promote "Knight Rider": An "80s Week" of programming stunts would have deployed Reagan-era favorites such as Phylicia Rashad of "The Cosby Show" on "Law and Order" and attired the "Deal or No Deal" models in "Flashdance" garb. But with writers picketing, NBC retreads such as "Bionic Woman" just can't be tweaked.

Still, like Mr. Silverman, NBC's Mr. Manze sees its Ford pact for "Knight Rider" presaging additional, comprehensive deal-making with Madison Avenue that goes beyond traditional product placement toward early-on involvement with advertisers. "This was an effort by everyone -- sales, programming and marketing -- and it represents the future of good, natural integration," Mr. Manze said, adding, "Here, the car really is the star."

If he can come up with an acceptable alternative model to pilot season and the upfront, Mr. Silverman might just be sharing the podium with KITT.

How Ford snared starring role in 'Knight Rider' TV movie

Asked what inspired him to do the original "Knight Rider," TV writer-producer Glen A. Larson once famously explained, "I wanted to do 'The Lone Ranger' with a car."
Ford's Mustang Shelby GT500KR
Ford's Mustang Shelby GT500KR

Last time around the car was GM's Pontiac Trans Am, but this go-'round, Ford's Mustang Shelby GT500KR will be playing the role of Michael Knight's trusty steed -- and both General Motors and Mr. Larson likely wouldn't mind firing a silver bullet straight into its chassis. For while NBC's "Knight Rider" is at full gallop with the latest Ford pony car, Mr. Larson's planned rival feature-film project for "Knight Rider" is idling at the Weinstein Co., stuck in neutral thanks to -- what else? -- the writers strike.

Curiously, a mélange of GM products, including a virtual KITT clone, a redesigned Chevy Camaro, were peppered throughout DreamWorks' massive hit "Transformers" last summer. (GM sales were up 2.7% in August 2007 through October 2007 compared with same time frame a year earlier, with just over 1 million sold.)

So how did GM -- a company repped in Hollywood by the William Morris Agency, alma mater of Mr. Silverman and which already created the car -- get caught so flat-footed?

Bullet in foot
Ironically enough, it might have been a victim of its own market strategy, one that hinges on restricting the development of new cars for its many marques: GM has just reported a 4.4% decline in December sales and a 6% drop for the full year after positioning the Chevrolet brand as an entry-level vehicle; Pontiac and Buick as midluxury cars; and Cadillac as its luxury brand, grouped with Saab and Hummer.

"The old 'Knight Rider' ride? That car doesn't exist, in essence," explained the show's executive producer, Dave Bartis, a partner with Hollywood director Doug Liman in Dutch Oven Productions. He added: "When you narrow it down to American-made, two-door muscle cars, we were left with one choice from each company."

(Simplifying matters, Chrysler plans to cease production on its Crossfire coupe next year, and GM's Camaro won't be available until much later this year.)

"Coming off a summer of 'Transformers,' it's obvious how important this space is," said Al Uzielli, senior adviser to Ford Global Brand Entertainment, "We approached this really strategically and attacked it on all fronts. Our media buyers knew there had to be some advertising commitment to get involved."

While Ford would not confirm just how much advertising was required for it to displace GM's KITT, Mr. Silverman called its commitment "enormous."

Mr. Uzielli did say the deal extends far beyond merely putting the Mustang GT as the KITT car; numerous other Ford brands will be featured in the movie of the week, in addition to several Ford spots that don't feature the Mustang specifically.

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