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September 01, 2009

Fred Silverman

By Rip Rense

One evening in 1948, when TV antennas numbered in the mere thousands, William Silverman came home with a kit for something called a Transvision. A radio man in charge of customer service for Sears Roebuck in New York City, Silverman assembled the strange little machine with his own hands, complete with its imposing seven-inch screen. He was so intrigued with the device that he soon changed jobs — becoming a Transvision or television repairman, before the career really existed. He was on the ground floor when they were still pouring the foundation.

Meanwhile, Silverman's eleven-year-old son, Fred, a radio addict with a fondness for The Shadow and True Detective Mysteries, also soon made the media switch. He and his mom, Mildred, began religiously catching Ralph Bellamy in Man Against Crime, and The Colgate Comedy Hour on the little Transvision in the living room in Rego Park, Queens.

Yet to talk to the only person in history to program all three — count `em, three — major TV networks, the connection was purely coincidental. William Silverman's early fascination with television didn't in any way influence Fred's ultimate career choice. . .

“Hmm,” said Silverman, mulling the thought over, as if it had never occurred to him before. “Not really. His making that set made the medium more acceptable to me. But I ended up in a totally different part of the business.”

Well, maybe not totally. William Silverman repaired television sets. His son, ultimately, repaired television.

“You know,” he said, with characteristic terseness, “I think we set some new standards.”

A case can be made that Silverman actually invented a healthy chunk of modern TV tastes, beginning at CBS in 1970, with one of the most shocking re-orgs in the history of the medium. The newly appointed 33-year-old vice-president in charge of programming simply wiped the 35-share-averaging (!) CBS slate clean. Gone overnight were those cornpone cornerstones, The Beverly Hillbillies, Green Acres, Gomer Pyle (“de-ruralization” of the network, the press called it). Gone were Red Skelton, Hogan's Heroes, and that hallowed institution, The Ed Sullivan Show. In their place, the intrepid programmer launched Bearcats (with Rod Taylor) Chicago Teddy Bears, O'Hara, U.S. Treasury (with David Janssen), Cabe's County (with Glenn Ford), and Funny Face (with Sandy Duncan). All of which promptly. . .

Failed. But one didn't. A show that probably changed programming sensibilities more than any other series in TV history: All in the Family.

“I put a bunch of bombs on the air,” Silverman remembered, from the offices of The Fred Silverman Co. in Los Angeles. “It was very much a nervous time. But we did get lucky with All in the Family. It was actually an ABC pilot they passed on. We grabbed it because we thought it would be a big hit. When it moved to 8 p.m. Saturday, it exploded. It got a 60 share of the audience. You're talking about an over-30 rating! In today's terms, if you get a 20 rating, they'll put up a monument for you.”

Silverman went on to build a winning schedule around Caroll O'Connor and company, eventually spinning off The Jeffersons, Maude, and Good Times, each of which embellished the blending of comedy and topical controversy. But this achievement would make just one section of the hefty Silverman resume. Other entries might read: turned daytime programming at CBS into a major moneymaker in the `60s; took the perennial also-ran, ABC, straight to the top in 1977 (landing him on the cover of Time); laid a foundation for some of the superb programming that marked NBC's preeminence in the `80s; reinvented self as producer of top-rated hour-long murder mysteries in `80s and `90s.

For this legendarily aggressive, intuitive, work-obsessed programmer, it all started with another resume item: his masters degree.

“I always wanted to be a director,” he said, “but it didn't look like I was destined to become the next Mike Nichols. I majored in theater as well as radio and television [at Syracuse University]. Later, when I was at Ohio State, getting a master's, my advisor said, `you really ought to think again, because you're interested in television and the creative aspects of entertainment. You ought to get into programming, which combines both.' He said that, to be honest, I'd make a better programmer than a director.” It was that simple. Silverman promptly wrote a master's thesis about ABC, excoriating the network's “pasteboard programmers” for failing to realize that TV was “basically a business.”

“ABC,” he wrote, “should provide. . .a `something for everybody' schedule” — a philosophy that he would make a career credo. The thesis, he admits, was a ploy to create his own lucky break; to get his young foot right in ABC's door.

“I thought it would be a way to really learn about network television programming and it would be my entree into a job. This would give me an opportunity to interview all the top executives.”

It did, but they didn't hire him. Silverman headed for Chicago on a lark, and dropped in at the one-time leading Dumont affiliate, WGN. He left the thesis with the personnel director, and this time, the ploy worked. Enter WGN staff producer Silverman, who in short order became director of program development, after taking the out-monied station to first place in the Friday night ratings merely by repackaging old movies. It was a simple, inexpensive idea — so simple that no one else thought of it.

“WGN was like a big tinker toy for me,” he said, pride still in his voice, decades later. “We took old movies and called it Academy Award Theater on Saturdays, and beat first-run movies in the theaters with pictures like Casablanca and African Queen. We put foreign movies on Sundays called Cinema 9, and dominated the time period. We put Tarzan and Bomba the Jungle Boy pictures on Tuesdays and killed Red Skelton! We took pictures like Tom Sawyer and Gulliver's Travels on Fridays, called it Family Classics, and did a 35 share! It absolutely killed Rawhide and The Flintstones! It was a great time, and I had a lot of fun.”

Enough fun to stay at WGN for three years, until things proved too much to weather — pun intended. Silverman itched to get away from that 80-below winter wind blowing off of Lake Michigan, and once again, created his own `lucky break.' While in grad school working on that thesis, he had also brazenly written a letter to CBS programming chief Oscar Katz, casually offering to reschedule his prime time line-up. Katz got a kick out of the brash offer, and invited the upstart to “keep in touch.” He did. A shake-up at CBS in 1963 found Katz's colleague, program director Michael H. Dann, hiring the WGN wunderkind to overhaul the network's daytime programmming. Silverman was 25.

Faced with a tired jumble of sitcom repeats in the mornings, game shows in the afternoon, and a sprinkling of soaps, Silverman went to work. Mornings went all-game, with such Silverman-approved additions as Joker's Wild, Gambit, and The Price is Right. He saturated the bulk of the day with soaps, from 11:30 to 4:30. As for Saturday morning, he was downright revolutionary. Sky King and Roy Rogers bit the dust in favor of first-run cartoons he personally helped develop. Along came the Children's Film Festival (not unlike the Family Film Classics at WGN), which quickly won a George Foster Peabody Award. To his endless credit — and pride to this day — Silverman also championed that redoubtable, beloved, and increasingly unprofitable Captain Kangaroo. Why? Because he knew kids liked it.

This was a man with self-confidence, or, as he put it with a laugh, “either self-confidence or stupidity.” His touch; his feel for viewer taste quickly became legend, along with his love of the medium. Silverman was essentially a viewer himself, with an insatiable interest in shows. “What's on tonight?” remain magic words to the man. There are tales of him choking back tears during soap operas, most of which he somehow found time to follow. He was, to paraphrase the Time cover story, a blue-collar guy in the white-collar CBS world. Pioneering TV executive Ethel Winant, who worked for Silverman at CBS and NBC, put it this way:

“Fred has a real sense of what people like. He was the first executive that grew up on television, and really loved it and watched everything. He was a daytime maven. He knew everything about every soap opera. He knew every story, and every back story.”

Silverman's panache led to his appointment, in 1970, as veep in charge of CBS programs. The subsequent “de-ruralization” and emergence of All in the Family were soon augmented by M*A*S*H* and the brilliant MTM comedies: The Mary Tyler Moore Show, The Bob Newhart Show, and Rhoda, rounded out by central character-driven dramas (a Silverman specialty) like Cannon, Kojak, and Barnaby Jones, and award-winning TV movies like The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman. The end results were Olympian: at the close of the `73-'74 season, CBS had nine of the ten top-rated shows, seven of which were Silverman picks. Emmys flooded in.

Where do you go from the top? Silverman was a fixer, like his father, and at CBS, there just wasn't much left to fix. Reports had him frustrated at being “the custodian of CBS's dominance,” and not sufficiently respected by the “white-collar element” at the network. At the time, Silverman said simply that he wasn't laughing any more, so he moved on. To ABC. The network's stock jumped two points the day Silveman was hired, in June 1975, despite having come off its worst season in years.

“I had to put on a different development hat at ABC,” he remembered. “It was more of a working class audience, and more urban. They had a long way to go, but Fred Fields and Michael Eisner had established some building blocks. In the course of a year or two, we had enormous success.”

Even that understates the matter. As Time wrote, “There is no parallel in the history of broadcasting — and few in any well-established industries — to ABC's sudden rise.” Said Silverman's old friend and colleague, Eisner: “He was incredibly hardworking, and one of the earliest strategic thinkers in a competitive sense. He created what is known as the grids. He would plot out programs week after week, with all the competition's counter-programming. He understood more than a program being just good or bad. He understood how to fit it into an overall flow.”

At ABC, Silverman junked successful shows like Wonder Woman, and The Tony Randall Show (both of which were picked up by other networks), along with thin fare like Kung Fu, Kolchak, and Kodiak, bringing in Baretta, Starsky and Hutch, Barney Miller, and Welcome Back, Kotter. He brought the PBS-proven concept of the mini-series to network TV with Rich Man, Poor Man, and ultimately, what is perhaps his proudest achievement: Roots.

“I think the highest point of the career has to be after Roots played, and the Time cover. Roots was a risk. Who knew whether people were going to be interested? It was about slavery. I didn't know. . .But we had the biggest ratings not only for Roots but also for our regular primetime schedule, and daytime was number one! You know, they talk about Camelot. It just doesn't get a hell of a lot better than that.”

Broadcast over a week in January 1977 — padded with tons of promos for other ABC shows — Roots became the most successful TV production in history, and helped land ABC in the number one spot by the spring. For his uncanny understanding of audience tastes, Time christened him, “The Man with the Golden Gut.”

If there is a thread of method that can be traced through the quilt of Silverman's success, it would have to do with character. Not his, but his shows'. Silverman figured something out when he commissioned new cartoons in the mid-60s: kids make up their minds fast, and they base their taste largely on the characters. In other words, if the characters are simple, vivid, memorable, the shows usually work. He implemented this same principle with adults, notably with ABC hits like Laverne and Shirley, The Love Boat, Charlie's Angels. He even reconfigured Happy Days to center more around The Fonz, and once ordered each Charlie's Angel to speak more distinctly from the other, remarking “you must define these characters better.”

There was a downside. You could fill a couple networks with the Silverman-ordered shows that didn't make it (Planet of the Apes, Me and the Chimp, Blansky's Beauties,etc.), but such, he will tell you, is the cost of taking risks. And the critics jumped all over the toothy, jiggling Angels, the Love Boat bikinis, etc., accusing Silverman of pandering to lowbrow taste. His unabashed defense, given to the Washington Post at the time: “Implicit in much of their criticism is the notion that television's primary role is to lift the public to some higher level of aesthetic appreciation. . .I believe television is providing quality across the board.” He followed with his motto, “there's something for everyone.”

Once again, there was nothing left to fix. He'd pulled off a Rocky with ABC; it was a hard act to follow. Yet the ever-restless Silverman tried, moving on again in January, 1978, to NBC. If there is any truth to the adage about the best person to compete against being yourself, Silverman might dispute it. He was back on the side of the underdog, suddenly competing against his own miraculous schedule at ABC!

“I had no idea when I accepted the job of CEO at NBC that the place was in as bad a shape as it was.The staff there, by and large, was really bad. You felt like a Roto-Rooter man. It took three years [the length of his contract] to get a top-line organization.”

He rescheduled, then rescheduled the rescheduling. Shows came and went more quickly than people do in Oz. Viewer loyalty wasn't much of an issue; shows often weren't around long enough to inspire any. It culminated, perhaps, with Silverman's greatest turkey, Supertrain, a kind of nuclear powered Love Boat on tracks, and (the successful) Real People, the ancestor of so-called “reality shows” (and a part of his legacy that he regrets.) Network revenue plummeted. Critics said that as CEO and chief of programming, Silverman was in over his head. Yet if he “failed” at NBC, it was a failure that left the network poised for its mid-'80s greatness under the leadership of his colleague Brandon Tartikoff, and Grant Tinker.

“Grant Tinker came in and I think he replaced one of the executives reporting to me,” said Silverman. “Tinker didn't just walk in there with a magic wand. I wish I had another year or two to make the point.”

The point is arguably made, anyway. Under Silverman, the network committed to such successes as St. Elsewhere, Cheers, Diff'rent Strokes, The Facts of Life, Gimme A Break, the landmark mini-series Shogun, and a little cop drama called Hill Street Blues.

“Hill Street Blues is Fred Silverman,” said Ethel Winant. “He wanted that show. He went to Bochco. That show was tailored to Fred Silverman's requirements. He felt that kind of cop show was exactly what the public would want. And everybody gets credit except Fred for Hill Street. Well, Brandon [Tartikoff] was there, but it was Fred's idea. He wanted it, and Bochco did a magnificent job of executing it.”

Silverman's programming days are long gone. Married for 25 years to one-time assistant Cathy Kihn, with two kids (his daughter is an associate producer at MTV, his son a student at Vassar), Silverman is comfortable as a producer, having rebuilt his career by enticing Raymond Burr to reprise Perry Mason, then Andy Griffith in Matlock, Carroll O'Connor in In the Heat of the Night, William Conrad in Jake and the Fatman, and Dick Van Dyke in Diagnosis: Murder. In all, about 850 hours of primetime programming, not far behind kingpin Aaron Spelling.

“He lured me back!” laughed Van Dyke. “He was literally like the Aesop fable about the Arab and the camel and the tent. He said `I want you to do this spin-off for me from Jake and the Fatman.' My God, I was 65 then, and I said, `I can't even think about doing an hour show at my age.' He said, `just do the pilot, that's all I want you to do, and help me sell it.' Then he called me that spring and said they want to do a TV movie. Then another came up. Then another. And then they picked it up for six or seven shows. And we thought, well, that's the end of us. Then they picked up a few more, and it's just dribbled along like that for six years now. So he's amazing. He's a heck of a salesman.”

Heck of a salesman. Not a bad mantle to take to a hall of fame.

“He should be in the Hall of Fame,” says Winant, “because he changed television forever at all three networks, and he brought along a lot of really talented people, like Brandon Tartikoff. If he did nothing but Hill Street Blues, it would be an extraordinary accomplishment.”

Silverman's response to his induction? He was, as usual, characteristically terse.

“Once it happens,” he said, “It will be even a bigger high point than Time magazine.”

But never as big, perhaps, as the thrill of first looking at that seven-inch screen of the Transvision that his father built, long ago.

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