NBC chief talks about network TV's future -- and his own
The wunderkind of American television is tired. Fred Silverman, president and chief operating officer of NBC, wants out when his contract terminates at the end of 1982. And he also wants to know if he is going to be paid off and replaced when Thornton Bradshaw, incoming chairman and chief operating officer of parent-company RCA, takes over on July 1.
In an interview at his luxurious corner office on the sixth floor of 30 Rockefeller Plaza, Mr Silverman leaned back on his sofa, looked out at the skyscrapers which surround him and said, just a bit sadly:
"I've been working for one network or another since 1963 [Mr. Silverman was first at CBS, then ABC, before he was hired with great fanfare by NBC] and that is a pretty long run for anyone. By the end of 1982, if it lasts that long, I think enough is enough.
"There's more to life than working on a television network. My daughter is nine years old and there are moments with her that I lost which I am never going to recapture. This is a very, very demanding job. It takes a lot out of you emotionally . . . . "
Is Mr. Silverman tired of the darts thrown at him by media critics?
"Yes. I'm a human being and you reach a point where you say, that's it, let somebody else do it. Everybody talks about this job as if it is a plum, like it's the most wonderful job in the world. It's a terribly difficult job and there haven't been too many laughs." He forces a smile.
"I still have a year and a half to go on my contract, but there is endless speculation about my continued tenure at this company. I have the endorsement of chairman Edgar H. Griffiths, who's going to be here until July 1. When Mr. Bradshaw takes over, I would hope he makes a decision on July 1 about who is going to run this company. If he's going to bring somebody else in, let him start July 1, because it [the uncertainty] isn't good for this company. I have grown to admire, respect, and love many of the people in this company and I don't want to see them get hurt. I think there has got to somebody running this company who has the confidence of RCA. Now, we're kind of in limbo."
But hasn't Mr. Bradshaw been quoted in the trade press as saying that he wants to come in and get to know people --that he doesn't endorse people, he evaluates them?
"From a theoretical standpoint, that's great. But from the point of view of the rank and file, it isn't so great, because people are spending more time worrying about who is going to run the company and their own job security than they are about coming to work and getting the job done. I don't think that's a healthy situation. It's debilitating and it is demoralizing. And it is a way to get less than the best out of people, starting with me."
Mr. Bradshaw, scheduled to take over the chairmanship of RCA on July 1, refuses to comment further, since he is not officially in charge. But in a speech to NBC affiliates in Los Angeles, the day after this interview, he pointedly referred to "the kind of programs and the kind of planning that Mr. Silverman and the terrific team he has brought together have prepared for the future of NBC."
Would Mr. Silverman like to be in place when the new schedule takes effect in September?
"I would like to be here," he says emotionally. "I would love to be here when this company moves forward [NBC is finishing the season a poor third to CBS and ABC]. There would be nothing more gratifying, after the past three difficult years, than to enjoy the fruits of the seeds that have been planted here."
NBC's new schedule includes 10 new series -- most featuring veteran TV stars such as James Arness, James Garner, Tony Randall, Rock Hudson, and Mickey Rooney. Was this a calculated plan to ensure success?
"no, the schedule reflects diversity. We're the only network that has a regularly scheduled variety hour. Three years ago we had two comedies, now we have seven. We have a mix of dramatic programs. It's a good schedule and within it there is the opportunity to do some important things."
Have the actions of the Moral Majority and the Coalition for a Better Television affected commercial TV planning at all?
"I don't think they had any effect here. I can't speak for the others.
I think 'Charlie's Angels' and 'soap' would have been canceled anyway. They weren't working. In the case of 'BJ and the Bear,' the time came to end it, since it had been on the air for 2 1/2 years and it never really made it. There is a moment in time when you say, 'Let's take it off and try something else.'"
Is it possible in the climate of the Moral Majority to do innovative programming?
"Why not? I think 'Hill Street Blues' is an innovative show and I don't think there is anything in it that is particularly objectionable. [This show has been cited for its allegedly excessive violence].
"We are also going to do a new show with Norman Lear that will deal with a lot of current issues, one subject a week --company of actors playing characters , and it will be like a review.
"We are going to do a pilot of the show this summer. Reuven Frank will work with Norman Lear on it. It is going to be done out of the news division as opposed to the entertainment division. I don't know whether this marriage will work but it sure is worth trying."
RCA has just announced an arrangement to enter the cable field with Rockefeller Center TV (RCTV). How come NBC is not involved?
"I think it was just a series of circumstances involving some people at RCA and Arthur Taylor, who heads up RCTV.
"Here at NBC we have had a recommendation to start a cable development unit within NBC that has been ready for three months. We'll be making that recommendation in the next 30 to 60 days.
"There's kind of an irony that if the recommendation is approved, we will be the second ones out of the gate here," he adds, shaking his head.
Does Mr. Silverman believe that we will see the demise of network broadcasting during the next decade?
For the first time, he perks up and his eyes flash. "That's nonsense. The networks are going to continue to be the major broadcasting medium. The new technologies will grow, but by and large, they're going to appeal to special interest groups." Mr. Silverman indicated that he does not see where all the culture-oriented cable companies are going to find good material -- and enough of an audience. "The culture audience is only a small section of the American viewing public, about 16 percent."
Mr. silverman is responsible for news as well as entertainment, and he is very happy with the way his new head of news, William Small, who came to NBC from CBS, is handling news. "There is the potential in the next year to move into a leadership position."
He is quite content with anchor John Chancellor and feels the "Today" show has enjoyed a renaissance. He is happy with Tom Brokaw, whose contract expires in August. "We're talking to him . . . but we know that he is also talking to the other two networks."
When the man called the whizz kid of network programming, the man who is responsible in part for both "All in the Family" and "Laverne and Shirley," steps down from NBC, what will he be doing?
There is no hesitation in Fred Silverman's voice:
"Maybe government service. Maybe teaching. Maybe producing family entertainment. Maybe a combination of any of those things. I only know that by the end of 1982 I will not be doing the same thing I am doing now. Whatever it is I do, it just can't demand as much from me as this job."
So far in his career, Mr. Silverman has always turned out to be a winner in the long run. There has always been a rabbit --out of his hat. So despite NBC's current third-place position, keep your eye on Fred Silverman's hat.