Ben Silverman, Thursday Nights, and Television for Smart People

· Joanthan Poritsky

Farewell, Ben Silverman. I have no doubt that whatever business venture you and Barry Diller are cooking up will be, if not successful, something that will generate a great deal of conversation. At the candler blog, we don’t usually get into the muck and dirt of Hollywood biz talk, so let’s change that for a brief moment.

Yesterday, Mr. Silverman announced his resignation as co-chairman of NBC Entertainment and NBC Universal TV Studios, a job he has had only two years. His is an interesting story, the center of which isn’t even the NBC gig at all, but a company called Reville Productions. Founded in 2002 by Mr. Silverman, the company has spawned some serious money-makers for a number of networks. Some big hits include “Ugly Betty”, “The Tudors”, and “The Biggest Loser”. In a very short amount of time he managed to produce hit after hit, garnering Emmys and prestige along the way.

But it was a short-run midseason replacement that aired in 2005 that set Mr. Silverman apart as a power-producer. “The Office” wasn’t an instant hit when it went on the air, but after the smashing success of The 40-Year Old Virgin that summer, star Steve Carell became an instant household name. America wanted more of him and Silverman had his ace in the hole.

After “Friends” went off the air in 2004, it was viewed as the final nail in the coffin for NBC’s Thursday Night programming. Fondly referred to as Must See TV through the 1990s, NBC’s late week programming was an unstoppable juggernaut of success. “ER”, “Seinfeld”, “The Cosby Show”, “Cheers”, “Mad About You”, and others all found a home on Thursday nights. But as reality TV took hold with NBC sticking to it’s sitcom guns, as the last decade began the evening’s popularity waned. Without an institution like “Friends” anymore, NBC’s Thursday future seemed grim.

“The Office”, on the other hand, managed to buoy both Mr. Silverman’s prominence and the network’s chances of restoring its former glory. The show is smart, funny and current. It’s documentary style, a mainstay of the original UK version, lends an immediacy to the action that audiences have become so used to in reality programming. Nixing a laugh track and a live audience lends a sense of purity to the humor: we will laugh when we want to. This is the sitcom, evolved.

I don’t want to wax poetic too hard on “The Office”. It is, after all, only building on what the brilliant Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant created for the BBC. Plus other American shows beat it to the punch, specifically “Arrested Development”, whose intellectual pace became a liability for the show, leading to cancellation. Unlike that show, “The Office” has found an audience, and it is huge. Greg Daniels deserves the creative credit for bringing “The Office” to fruition, but Mr. Silverman’s gift was in getting into the homes of millions. It was an incredible coup for those longing for smart situational comedy. Mr. Silverman landed a sweet position at the top of NBC because of this success, and now he’s on to bigger and better things.

So where are we now? “30 Rock” now makes a nice sandwich of Thursday nights. After 3 seasons, with a 4th on the way, the show has won the hearts of critics and Emmy voters alike, but it is still slowly finding the right footing with the American public. To his credit, Ben Silverman stayed strong and kept ordering full seasons of this scruffy little show, which is paying off at least in mindshare. Smarter shows bring smarter viewers, who may be inclined to stay and buy expensive things.

“Kath & Kim”, another Reville production, was a rather unsuccessful show this year; it won’t be back, thankfully. The new “Parks & Recreation” (what’s up with the ampersand in that time slot, right?) starring Amy Poehler showed some promise in its midseason premiere, but it smacks of mimeographed comedy from “The Office”. It was also created by Greg Daniels. Probably Mr. Silverman’s most interesting decision during his tenure was giving an hour long show to Jay Leno at 10:00pm after his resignation from the Tonight Show. When the show, whose format is still unclear, premieres this fall, we’ll see whether or not this maverick move pays off.

Ben Silverman is a very young executive who came to the once number one NBC two years ago with a single task: raise the network out of fourth place (read: last place). After two years of trying to bring smarter content to the airwaves, and in my opinion bringing back the creative energy of the 1990s, NBC remains in fourth place. The numbers don’t lie, but with a promising fall schedule orchestrated by the exiting Silverman, we will have to see who gets to have the last laugh.