The Missing Link

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.

Last fall, Weakest Link was launched on the BBC daytime schedule. “It’s obvious this is a serious show,” Ben said, coming to the edge of his seat, “like this has become a major thing.”

MIP-TV, the international television market in Cannes, is where the Morris agents, representing the BBC – Ben from New York, Greg Lipstone from L.A., Hans Schiff from London – start the bidding.

Now, what is being sold is not entirely clear, other than that the buyer will be able to make a game show similar to the BBC’s game show without the BBC suing. But with a few tweaks and set changes, you could probably safely do that anyway. Really, it’s something larger that you’re buying. You’re buying vibe; you’re buying heat. You’re buying, Ben said, “format security.” Whatever that means.

You have Time Warner’s Telepictures bidding; you have NBC and Sony; you have Jeff Sagansky’s Pax stations; you have Miramax going crazy and Harvey heading over the top.

But I realized, listening to Ben eagerly explain it, that it would be naïve to assume that format is just heat, or organization and arrangement, or look and feel, or dramatic structure.

Format is, as importantly, a business plan – it’s a way to rationally apply the system of production, distribution, and financing.

For one thing, by licensing the show in this way rather than, say, doing a deal with an American television-production company (Universal, for instance, or Telepictures, or Miramax), the network owns the show. Networks, trying to get themselves out of the network business, are plunging headlong into the ancillary-market-distribution game – they need shows to sell, product to syndicate. And then, because networks are part of vastly broader media enterprises, which is called vertical integration, there are all kinds of more or less creative ways of financing. Sometimes you can take synergy to the bank.

It was Sagansky who first got excited about Weakest Link. He was willing to commit right away to producing and running thirteen shows for Pax, which is really an independent mini-network. This enthusiasm was convenient, because Pax’s major shareholder is NBC, which, because it didn’t have a big reality show and was still hopelessly mired in sitcom/hour-drama antiquity, was the logical and hoped-for buyer of Weakest Link.

So, if Pax was willing to take thirteen episodes, NBC’s downside was covered. Pax would pay for it and run it, even if, worst-case, NBC decided Weakest Link was a dog.

Then, too, you had another NBC-related company – NBC Enterprises and Syndication – that was interested. Ed Wilson, a bluff golfer type, who had just come over from CBS syndication to head the company (he was in New York from Burbank for Upfront week – before I knew it, I was sitting next to him at dinner at Mr. Chows on Ben’s invitation), was next onboard for Weakest Link. He was willing to do the distribution of the show from daytime market to daytime market. In other words, NBC Enterprises would distribute Weakest Link the way Oprah is distributed – you syndicate it, selling it station by station without regard to a specific network. Only in this instance, the network itself would be doing the syndication (in effect, creating another network – go figure).

Bringing it all together, in January, Jeff Zucker was moved over from the Today show to run NBC Entertainment and Weakest Link became a prime-time-schedule lifeline for him – the difference, in fact, between a good season and a desperate one. Effortlessly, he had a twice-weekly prime-time show; what’s more, the show was sold into Canada and other markets, including, even, back into the U.K. On top of that, there is the five-times-a-week daytime version, produced and licensed (re-licensed, if you will) by the network, which is sold into the first-run syndication market (i.e., the network is taking a piece of this business, which in the past it never had). And then there’s the back-end merchandising – Millionaire, for instance, has made $50 million on a CD-rom version. The pieces of the puzzle do fall into place.

I keep seeing Ben Silverman at dinner parties; he really is very entertaining. I hear his name everywhere. The other morning, there he was, in a little dot-sketch, in the Wall Street Journal. In some sense, he’s like those boy geniuses of the eighties and nineties who invented new financial instruments – junk bonds and derivatives and whatnot. The discovery and marketing of a new format is really like that. It’s creating something that is negotiable and transferable and that people believe in deeply – it solves all their problems. Now, obviously, there is a certain obsolescence to these formats (with junk bonds you had inevitable bankruptcies). And Ben, of course, is already searching the world for new formats. Variety shows might be a possibility.

The thing about television is that you don’t know where it’s going. I’ve sent Ben my reel and we’re talking.


The Missing Link