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The Missing Link

A rude host isn't the real reason Weakest Link is plastered all over NBC's schedule. Would you believe a brash young agent has discovered TV's new secret formula?


In a worst-case dinner-party scenario, I was seated next to a television agent.

He had dark hair, deep-set eyes, and a fetching twist to his collar. I doubted if he was much out of his twenties. He was more dewy than smarmy -- self-satisfied yet eager to please. Ben Silverman, William Morris Agency.

He was involved, he said, with format representation. This seemed to imply some back-office function, or a type of Hollywood title inflation, or just generally an effort to represent something that God did not intend to need representation.

He said with great enthusiasm that format was the DNA of television programming. Reality programming was his métier.

What he did was travel around the world looking for dramatic modes to import -- setups, conceits, ways of interacting, shtick. He was a miner in the world's great natural wealth of kitsch and novelty.

Now, while I was still hoping I could somehow not too rudely exchange my seat, I also realized there was work to be done. I'd been trying to come up with some interesting point of view about reality television, which I find, of course, entirely uninteresting.

Talking to a reality-programming agent had to be preferable to watching reality programming.

Without a format, television functionally ceases to exist. Or it becomes just a random series of events, or a transparent delivery mechanism -- like the phone or, worse, like the Internet.

He gave me projections for Weakest Link. The extent of the blowout, the speed and height of the trajectory. Its possible frequency, reach, permutations. If Survivor is a gauge of CBS's stature and recent profit gains, and if Millionaire is the standard at ABC, then, he expected, Weakest Link was going to be the benchmark for NBC. Two times a week prime-time, every day in the daytime market. The Weakest Link woman, this faux meanie, had a shot, he felt, at cultural immortality (of course, cultural immortality isn't what it used to be).

Agent talk works. The pieces of the puzzle, in an agent's telling, fall so blithely into place. You get into this, I confess. This happens, then that happens, then a call is placed, and a great hit and ensuing fortunes are made. By dessert, young Ben Silverman and I were arranging a follow-up. After all, in any great transformation, there's bound to be an agent, whom it couldn't hurt to know.

Reality television and related games, however ridiculous, are, after 40 years, busting up the prime-time sports/news/sitcom/hour-drama hegemony.

Indeed, there was a sense of awe about the end of prime time as we know it among the television people in New York for the recent annual Upfront presentations -- when the networks, with great desperation and enormous ceremony, offer their fall lineups to advertisers.

Prime-time television, the most conservative of mediums, ironfisted in its hold on character, motivation, narrative, notions of morality, social roles, physical beauty, was coming apart.

Creative anxiety was everywhere ("a deep crisis in narrative," Neal Gabler said ominously on the Times op-ed page).

The Sopranos was all you had to say.

I had even started to think that with a little rejiggering, you could take the narrative breakdown, and the postmodern elements of reality programming, and make something interesting. This Matt Damon-Ben Affleck Runner business -- wherein, as I understand it, contestants (the new word for characters), traveling incognito across the country, win a million dollars if they make it without being spotted (advertisers apparently get their products cleverly integrated into the incognito proceedings) -- did not seem like brain surgery. You could really begin to believe television was a wide-open place.

I went to see young Ben to talk more about this revolution.

Oddly, and embarrassingly, when I arrived, a whole group of Morris agents were poised to have me pitch a show to them. Was everyone, like Matt and Ben, pitching a new concept these days?

In a world without stars, plot, fixed schedules, or big budgets, a sort of anarchy had been loosed upon the medium. Who isn't excited by the possibilities? Agents, with their uncanny talent for sensing the shifting sources of power and the ensuing opportunities, were probably the most excited.

And yet as I listened to the shower of television ideas, agent insights, and reports from Upfront week, I could also see what Ben Silverman was up to.

The truth is this: Television is a constant search for predictability. Anarchy is the antithesis of the little screen.

Without a format, television functionally ceases to exist. Or it becomes just a random series of events, or a transparent delivery mechanism -- like the phone or, worse, like the Internet.

Originality has its place, but a preexisting television concept, something that can demonstrably hold the attention of the public, is a thing of beauty.

Here's the long and short of it, Ben said, talking tough: Four out of five original programs fail; three out of four shows based on a proven format succeed (or at least are renewed).

Therefore, if you don't have a format, or if your existing formats have been exhausted, you have to go in search of other format sources. At 25, Ben Silverman was sent to work in the William Morris office in London, where he discovered . . . game shows. (He couldn't, of course, have remembered game shows from the first time around.)

There is a sense, as the agents talk about it, of a format being a force of nature, really. Something that exists naturally rather than something that can be created.

Format is top-grade crude, and England (Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, Weakest Link), Sweden (Survivor), and the Netherlands (Big Brother) are the OPEC countries.

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