One day last fall Garry Marshall, executive producer of ABC’S hit show Happy Days, casually mentioned to the network’s new president of entertainment, Fred Silverman, that two girls had shown up well in an episode of his series. Silverman reacted quickly. He ordered a tape of the show flown to New York. He liked what he saw and a few weeks later ordered an amazed Marshall to produce a Happy Days spinoff called Láveme And Shirley. The show became a hit almost immediately. Decisions like that have made Silverman something of a legend in broadcasting—and in the process jerked ABC out of its perennial bottom spot in the ratings and turned it into one of the most surprising success stories in American television history.
At 38, Silverman is known as a no-nonsense network programmer who makes fast, tough decisions about what shows millions of viewers will see. Silverman proved just how tough he could be during his five years as CBS’s vice-president in charge of programming. He axed such perennials as Ed Sullivan and Andy Griffith, then swept out the network’s entire stock of country corn shows — Hee Haw, Beverly Hillbillies, Green Acres—and replaced them with more urban-oriented fare like All In The Family and Mary Tyler Moore. In the process, he also proved that he was a programming wizard: during his tenure, CBS remained firmly in first place ahead of NBC and ABC.
With this kind of success it came as a shock last summer when Silverman moved over to third-ranked ABC to take charge of the network’s programming at a salary rumored to be $200,000 a year. Silverman arrived too late to do much about ABC’S new
September shows and the network languished in its traditional third spot. But he orchestrated the second season in January and the results were astounding: with blitzkrieg swiftness, ABC jumped into first place for the first time in its 20-year history. Show after show began tumbling into Nielsen’s top-ten ratings: Happy Days, Láveme And Shirley, Six Million Dollar Man, Rich Man, Poor Man, Donny And Marie. In the week ending March 31, Nielsen reported that ABC had cornered seven of the week’s ten top-rated shows.
Silverman’s success, however, has nothing to do with art. “None of Fred’s decisions are complicated by devotion to good taste,” says noted New York Times television writer Les Brown, ABC’S offerings for the 1976-77 season merely repeat the tired television litany of police action-adventure, situation comedies and variety shows. Among the nine new shows, Robert Stack stars in a cop series called Most Wanted', Stefanie Powers plays a lady defense attorney in Feather And Father', Nancy Walker (Rhoda’s mom) has her own series, and so does Tony Randall; Bill Cosby stars in a variety show, as do the rock duo. Captain and Tennille. Rich Man, Poor Man will probably become a series, but the only promising new show is an adaptation of Roots, Alex Haley’s biography of seven generations of a black family. In television, however, familiarity breeds success. So with Fred Silverman in charge of programming, ABC is likely to hold onto its lead next season.
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