A celebrated ex-network chief looks at the new TV world
Malibu, Calif. — The only man in television history to hold top positions in all three commercial networks has chosen a new relaxed life style for himself, away from the hectic pace of the TV hierarchy.
Instead of his usual spot in the tense center of the anticipatory tumult caused by the introduction of the new season - going on right now at CBS, ABC, and NBC headquarters in Los Angeles and New York - Fred Silverman has distanced himself for most of the year in the famed Malibu beach colony, far out of the limelight.
Even out of the network limelight, Silverman remains a controversial figure. Whenever recent network history is reviewed, there are those who praise him for being responsible for bringing ''All in the Family'' to CBS and those who damn him for his responsibility in bringing ''Laverne and Shirley'' to ABC. There are as many people who think he raised sitcom standards as there are those who feel his influence lowered them. He is criticized for killing off unsuccessful shows too quickly; revered for an uncanny talent for ''fixing'' ailing shows.
All would agree, however, that the Silverman touch left an indelible mark on 1960-1980 network television programming.
Two years ago, just a few days before he was informed that his tenure at NBC was over, I interviewed him, and he made it clear that he was tired of the uncertainty and wanted to know just where he stood with the NBC/RCA brass. When we met in the lobby of a Century City hotel recently, we reminisced about that interview. ''Well, I certainly got my answer quickly,'' he laughed.
''How about another interview now from your new perspective outside the executive offices?'' I asked, in a shamefully opportunistic way.
A few days later I was lunching with him at his new luxurious oceanfront villa not far off the Pacific Coast Highway, about a half-hour's drive from Los Angeles. He is more chipper, relaxed, and seemingly happy than I have ever seen him. But the old hyperactive Silverman has hardly been sublimated. He still maintains an office in Los Angeles where he can be found now and then and is currently in the throes of masterminding the introduction of two new shows for which he serves as executive producer - ''We Got It Made'' (NBC, Thursdays, 9-9: 30 p.m.); and ''Thicke of the Night'' (syndicated weekdays, in most markets 11: 30 p.m.-1 a.m.).
''We Got It Made'' is a three-in-the-house comedy a la ''Three's Company,'' with two single men sharing a house - platonically, of course - with a gorgeous blonde housekeeper. She, by the way, is bound to attract the wrath of feminists, since she plays it as the stereotypical ''dumb but shrewd blonde.''
''Thicke of the Night'' stars Canadian talk-show host Alan Thicke in a program designed to knock Johnny Carson out of the late-night throne he has occupied for more than 20 years. Syndicated nationwide, many NBC stations as well as independents seem to be signing up with Thicke for a battle royal. Silverman, who while head of NBC had his troubles dealing with Carson, feels that the time is ripe for a switch in viewer loyalty.
Now, shod in comfortable Topsiders, wearing Chino slacks and a beige Indian cotton short-sleeved shirt, Mr. Silverman's penetrating green eyes sweep over his beach-luxury home. We had been forced to move inside to the glass-doored dining room because the surf noises on the terrace made it impossible for me to tape. It is apparent that his years as network executive left him in fine financial fettle.
We munch on tuna-fish sandwiches and orange juice as I begin to probe gently, since I am still not certain where the vulnerable spots lie. Does all that experience as an executive help Fred Silverman as an independent producer?, I ask.
''Oh, yes. I've built up a body of experience over the years involving all the principal TV forms. It's like going to training school to become a specialist. It also has helped analytically. If you can marry the creative and the analytical, that's the proper approach to TV. It shouldn't be all of one or the other, but a mix.''
Do corporate connections help now?
''In some instances they have helped, especially with people who are friends. But there are some people anxious to turn one of my ideas down and boast that they turned down a Silverman idea.''
Do such things make Silverman bitter?
''No. I knew that for the first year there would be a period of great adjustment. When you're in a seat of great power and you have the ultimate say, and all of a sudden you're out there pitching with everybody else in town, that is a period of adjustment. It took about a year. But now, I think it's a lot of fun.
''But a good show is a good show and a dog is a dog whether you're on the buying or selling side. The basic product doesn't change. The big difference is that I've gotten a lot closer to the process. I don't have 48 people between me and the program. That used to be frustrating. There was only so much input and then you had to leave it to the people who were producing and writing the shows. Now, I'm not an outsider. I'm part of the family that's involved in my shows.''
Is it possible that Silverman can make a greater contribution to American TV now than as a network executive?
''It's possible I can make a contribution. But I wouldn't say it will be greater. After all, when you are the chief executive officer of NBC you have the opportunity to make a great contribution. But I think that here there's a lot more freedom. And I can deal with anyone - if I have an idea that I think is good and I can't sell it to the three networks, then I'll put my own network together as I'm doing with 'Thicke of the Night.' ''
Does Silverman the TV observer see any new TV forms developing?
''I think MTV (Music Television, a cable program service) is a new form. It's a magazine of sorts. As a point of departure I think you'll be seeing a lot of programs that are short forms, segments two or three minutes long, put together in an unusual way. A magazine of sorts. The news divisions are doing it all the time in their magazine shows like '60 Minutes' and '20/20' and in their early morning shows like 'Today' and 'Good Morning America.' You'll soon see that starting in the entertainment arena. I think you'll see shows that combine comedy and drama, and music and commentary.''
Is producer Silverman preparing such a show?
''Yes, Magicable is a cable service I am developing based upon that principle. It depends upon the sum total of all the elements. It's an amalgam of all the principal elements of radio. There are hosts, who tie the service together; there's comedy, music, contests, information, entertainment features. With one or two exceptions, no element in the service is more than three minutes long. The morning show is three hours long, but within each hour it's constructed like a reel where there may be a dozen different elements. It's a basic 24-hour cable service. I have found partners, and now we are negotiating deals.''
Does this emphasis on cable mean that he believes we are in the last decade of commercial network TV?
''No. There's always going to be a need for mass television. There are major national advertisers who need that kind of reach. I think that cable will always be a much smaller audience. I think the networks will always be around. Maybe they won't have 80 percent of the audience - 50 percent may be more like it. But they'll still be the dominant force.''
Will the networks manage to become the dominant force in cable, too?
''They're trying. I don't know. With the folding of CBS Cable, CBS is back to square one. I think there will be some network participation in cable but there are some pretty big players already. Group W, Time Inc., Warners. They're very big companies. And Ted Turner. I give him an enormous amount of credit. Three or four years ago people thought he was a buffoon. Well, he hasn't proved to be a buffoon and CNN service is terrific. I think he's teaching the networks some things.''
The discussion turns personal. Fred wants me - and the TV world at large - to know that he feels great.
''I did 20 years up there. That's a long time. I did everything that I wanted to do. I finally realized that there really must be more to life than getting up each morning and worrying what the ratings will be. . . . Now, I make my own schedule. When you work for a big company, your life style has got to fit into the institution. Here, what I've done is to create my own institution which fits into my life style. It's just a more pleasant way of living. No matter how hard you try, no matter how hard you work, there's a moment in time when someone comes along and does it better than you do. That's the story of life.''
Would his experience since he left NBC make Silverman a better network executive now?
''Yes, because I've learned a lot.''
Would Silverman return to head a network if asked?
''I wouldn't go back. That's a part of the past. I'm not interested in doing that again. Those jobs are tougher now than they were three years ago. There's more competition, greater pressure to perform. . . .I've gotten all that power syndrome out of my system. . . . I'm spending more time with the family and that's the way I like it.
''However, I am also working on things that I enjoy doing - theatrical movies , the cable system, and the good new shows, for instance.''
As a TV viewer, does he find programming improved?
''Shows like 'Playing For Time' and 'Golda' kept audiences for hours. Who ever thought a national television audience would sit for those shows? But they did and they were big hits. The clones of the series aren't working anymore. The audience is getting smarter. You can't rip something off successfully anymore that easily.''
Which brings up the fact that some people blame Silverman for some of the worst sitcoms on commercial TV.
''Listen, I programmed what I thought would work. Even in those days a lot of things were new. Or they hadn't been done in a particular way. 'Three's Company' was new - there had never been a show like that on American TV. I was responsible for 'All in the Family, 'M*A*S*H' and saving 'The Mary Tyler Moore Show,' too. A whole string of good comedies. People forget that.''
What show is Silverman proudest of?
'' 'All in the Family.' It was a landmark show . . . really funny, had something to say. It really changed the face of television. In the dramatic form , there was a show I am proud of called 'Family.' It was a modest success. A simple show . . . but one to be proud of.''
What are some of the new forms, other than Magicable, on which Silverman is now at work?
''I'm developing a movie on Edward R. Murrow's life. And I have an idea for a prime-time comedy show where we have a repertory group of about a dozen players. They will do one-act plays, adaptations of short stories, original material. It could be a gloriously successful show since it would present comedy in a whole new framework of time.''
Silverman has an 11-year-old daughter and a 7-year-old son. Does he allow them to watch television freely?
''No, we restrict the amount of time they are allowed to watch. But the kids are into games and computers and music. They look at MTV. They've become too sophisticated for most of the Saturday morning cartoons and don't bother with much of prime-time TV. There's very little on the air that interests them. And there are no shows that we watch together.''
Does Silverman feel there is a greater need for family fare on TV?
''I believe the networks must see that in order for shows to work at 8 p.m., adults have to enjoy them. That should be the first target, not kids. The kids will come along if the adults also like a family-oriented show. On the other hand, when they put on a show like ''Just Our Luck'' (ABC Tuesdays, 8 p.m., beginning Sept. 20.) that's running counter to the family-show theory. My whole thrust in development for 8 p.m. is to dream up shows that parents and children can look at together. It's quite a challenge. Spielberg and Lucas do it in movies. I'd like to do it for TV.''
How does Silverman feel about NBC's great hit, ''The A Team'' in the 8 p.m. spot?
''In my opinion it's too tough although it does attract adults and kids. I'd feel uncomfortable with my little one looking at that. Why not put it on later in the evening?''
After having spent twenty years as a network executive and around two years as an independent producer, if he could do whatever he wanted, what would it be?
''What I'm starting to do right now. I'm a little bit of an entrepreneur, a producer, an executive. I get involved in all the various aspects of the entertainment business. I develop the kind of things I want to do. And if Magicable works, it will be my own network. I won't be continuing in the tradition of William Paley; I will be involved in something I created myself. And that makes a very big difference. Hopefully it will be on the air in the middle of 1985.''
Silverman has become very animated as he talks about Magicable. It is obviously his dream of glory for the future. And the calm, relaxed beachcomber of Malibu seems to have been transformed into an excitable TV executive, despite his protestations.
But, we're talking only of work, I interject. Don't you have time for hobbies and relaxation out here in this wonderful spot on the ocean?
''Sure,'' he says just a bit sheepishly. ''I bought a little sailboat. I haven't learned to use it yet, but I bought it. That's a good start, isn't it?''
These days, whenever I get too involved in the everyday turmoil of network television programming, it calms me to think of the new, relaxed Fred Silverman, out there in the Pacific, sailing.
You are out there, aren't you Fred?