Television

Have Nielsens, Will Travel

July 10 1978
Television

Have Nielsens, Will Travel

July 10 1978

Have Nielsens, Will Travel

Television

Last year, television’s hottest personality was Farrah Fawcett-Majors. This year it’s Fred Silverman, who doesn't look half as good in a T-shirt, doesn’t star in a major series, doesn’t host a talk show or broadcast the news. But by masterminding those who do, Silverman, 40, the new president and chief executive officer of NBC, has had infinitely more influence on North America’s viewing habits than a host of Charlie’s angels. Fred Silverman, in fact, is an invisible guest every evening in more U.S. and Canadian homes than any other person in broadcasting history.

The Silverman saga, as long-running and crisis-filled as a daytime soap opera, began when ABC hired him away from his job as CBS’S chief of entertainment programming. As head of the rival network’s programming, Silverman led the successful drive that catapulted the perennial third-place ABC to No. 1 in the all-important Nielsen ratings. But that was just the beginning. Last January, NBC, an unexpected third in the ratings, lured Silverman from ABC for a reported yearly salary of $1 million. As a measure of the power of the Silverman name, the news of his hiring sent stock in RCA, NBC’S parent company, up 1 'A points and lowered ABC shares by 13A points. Later, the august New York Times found it necessary to report, among other global news, that it had spotted Silverman buying seven suits.

The object of all this attention is a short, chunky New Yorker whose prematurely greying hair makes him look a good decade older than he is. Son of a TV repairman, he got his master’s degree at Ohio State, where he wrote his thesis on ABC programming. Despite the 400-odd-page document, ABC was not farsighted enough to hire him then. But CBS programming chief Mike Dann was. In 1962 Dann drafted Silverman to become head of CBS daytime programming. Seven years later he replaced Dann as over-all entertainment chief at CBS, where he never fitted into the network’s Ivy League executive mould but where his long roster of successes included Mary Tyler Moore, All in the Family, M.A.S.H. and The Waltons.

By the time ABC recruited Silverman to head its programming department, most of the shows that would bring them to the top were already in production. But Silverman’s skill in scheduling and sharpening the material gave ABC the decisive push it needed to make it to the top. He moved the traditional premiere period from the third week in September to the first, throwing the industry into a turmoil. He further decided that ABC would lead off by showing

Roots on successive nights—a stroke that made the mini-series television’s newest art form. And he gave new life to Happy Days, whose appeal was on the wane, by refocusing it on a young hipster whose major accomplishment seemed to be combing his hair: ergo. The Fonz.

What gives Silverman the uncanny ability to forecast the tastes of the viewing public is very simple—he is the viewing public. His reactions to what will go are visceral and so far his stomach has performed about as well as Graham Kerr's. In an industry where some broadcast bigwigs can scarcely conceal their contempt (or the programs they peddle, Silverman actively enjoys them. At one ABC affiliates' meeting, while other executives played upwardly mobile games of golf and power tennis, Silverman huddled under a beach blanket watching a battery-powered television; and the story of how one CBS producer found him crying during the screening of a soap-opera scene has already become the stuff of media folklore.

However, the man who has hit so many home runs with the public has yet to make

it to first base with the critics. “We all know what Silvermanism is,” sniffed one respected commentator. Silvermanism can be defined as lowest-common-denominator television, featuring sex (Charlie's Angels, Three's Company), violence, (Starsky and Hutch) and plain idiocy, (Láveme and Shirley, Happy Days). A former competitor, NBC’S programming chief Paul Klein, once termed it “television for kids and dummies.” Since Klein now reports to Silverman, his future at NBC must be considered clouded. And indeed, as it saw itself drop from a comfortable No. 2 to a humiliating No. 3, NBC top brass decided that maybe kids and dummies weren’t so bad after all.

There was, of course, more than pride at stake. A difference of one point in the prime-time ratings can mean as much as $25 million in corporate profits. Clearly, it was a case for Super-Silverman—and when he finally arrived, NBC executives were obviously suffering from a profound case of pre-Freddie jitters, neatly summed up by a mail boy who emerged from the elevator wearing a T-shirt with the logo “High Anxiety.” Reporters, waiting for Silverman to make an appearance, roared with glee.

By the time Silverman made his public debut in mid-June at the annual NBC affiliates’ meeting, calm was beginning to return. If broad smiles had not yet appeared on executive lips, at least their mouths were no longer pursed in anxious frowns.

Silverman’s top priorities are the fall schedule and resolution of the nightly news. The new chief executive has already shaken up NBC’S fall offerings, rescheduling and redirecting the emphasis of several new shows. He is most excited about Lifeline, a nonfiction drama about the lives of doctors and their patients, which he predicts “could be the single show on any network this fall that changes the face of prime-time television.” As for the NBC nightly news, John Chancellor, who had previously said he would relinquish his anchor spot, has agreed to stay on for another year. When asked how much arm twisting he had applied to make Chancellor change his mind, Silverman answered with a smile, “I’ve always been a fan of John Chancellor. You could say 1 was consulted about the decision.”

For the assembled affiliates, however, it was not the Silverman line but Silverman himself that mattered. They scrutinized the dais with the care the CIA usually reserves for the balcony picture of the Soviet leadership reviewing the annual May Day parade. Who would be the first executive to get the axe? Some thought it might be NBC television president Robert Mulholland but most speculation centred on the outspoken Paul Klein, not among the head-table high-powered assemblage. Silverman himself, of course, is only too aware of the bottom line. If he can't turn the faltering network around he himself may be the first to go. RITA CHRISTOPHER