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Out of the Box

Ben Silverman’s unrealized revolution.

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When Ben Silverman was hired, at age 36, as the co-chairman of NBC Entertainment, I was excited for him to do—well, what exactly? Something revolutionary, I was sure. He was young, brash and flashy, with a notable track record (he imported and developed the American version of The Office) and, moreover, he seemed to understand that TV needed to be transformed. He came across like the anti–Les Moonves, the suave, ex-actor head of CBS who always insisted that the network way of doing things remains as viable as ever. Silverman seemed to recognize that the old model was, well, old: Ratings were falling, young people were fleeing, the Internet was nibbling at the margins, and the DVD cash cow had dried up. So Silverman (even the name sounds superheroic) had arrived to bravely steer NBC into a future in which TV busts out of the livingroom, as computers and televisions (and smartphones) merge into one. As recently as May, his boss, Jeff Zucker, told the Times, “Ben has a skill set that is incredibly appropriate for these times.” Silverman agreed. “The industry hasn’t seen an executive like me in a long time,” he told Esquire early on in his tenure, right before calling a rival ABC executive “a sad man” and “a moron.”

Last week, at age 38, he announced his departure from NBC to head a Barry Diller–backed digital production company, leaving the network, and television, pretty much exactly as he found it. For TV fans, this is a shame—not because of anything Silverman did, but for what he could have done. After he was hired, blogger Nikki Finke called him “the most off-the-hook network executive that Hollywood has ever seen. On the other hand, bringing the network from fourth place up to first place may require not just out-of-the-box thinking but also out-of-the-box behavior.” Silverman provided plenty of the latter (just Google Silverman and “white tiger”) but little out-of-the-box thinking. His innovations consisted of resuscitating things like American Gladiators and scheduling more unbroken blocks of cheap (in every sense of the word) TV, such as reality shows and variety talk. We, the eager viewers, hoped for a revolution. We got Knight Rider.

In fact, the most innovative decision on his watch was actually made by Zucker: giving Jay Leno a nightly prime-time variety show. This may turn out to be short-term ratings genius, but it’s hardly forward-looking—it’s more like NBC’s traveled back in time to 1953. With Silverman’s arrival, the nothing-to-lose, NBC seemed poised to reinvent itself, yet the best it’s come up with is Hulu: useful but, with its reruns and embedded ads, is just tiny TV on your laptop. I’d hoped Silverman would really fling spaghetti at the screen to see what stuck: experimenting with, I don’t know, iPhone-only mini-episodes, or an interactive mystery show with clues scattered all over the web, or a sci-fi series with a plot steered by audience votes. Maybe he never had the opportunity; maybe he never had the inspiration.

Either way, the NBC he leaves looks awfully familiar. There used to be one Tonight Show; now there’s two. Hardly a great leap forward. Finke’s Schadenfreudal coverage of his departure has been labeled “The Ben Silverman Experiment Ends.” The irony is that NBC, and television, badly needs a new Ben Silverman Experiment to begin, but this time with someone who can actually deliver what he once seemed to promise.

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