A man for all TV seasons: Fred Silverman ran all 3 networks

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Posted: Sep 14, 2015 5:54 PM
A man for all TV seasons: Fred Silverman ran all 3 networks

LOS ANGELES (AP) — At age 77, Fred Silverman has cast his practiced eye on a few upcoming fall TV shows.

Of a new thriller focused on a girl's tattoos, he comments, "They put a lot of money in it, but the concept is thin."

He's bullish on "The Muppet Show" and the hospital drama "Code Black."

Mostly, he's glad he can judge from the sidelines.

As ABC's entertainment president four decades ago, he weathered the same anxiety that gnaws at today's TV bosses as he awaited viewers' verdict on his fall slate. Or maybe that fall of 1975 he felt extra jumpy. He was putting forward a schedule he had mostly inherited a few months earlier when he shocked the TV industry by jumping to ABC from CBS, whose long-time ratings dominance he cemented during five years as its programming chief with such hits as "All in the Family," ''M-A-S-H" and "The Waltons."

During three seasons at his new post, Silverman would do the unthinkable: unseat CBS and raise the perennially hexed ABC to unprecedented victory with shows like "Charlie's Angels," ''The Love Boat" and the miniseries "Roots."

By 1978, there was just one mountain left to climb. Silverman bolted to woebegone NBC, where he stayed three years.

In just over a decade, Silverman, still only 43, would manage all three teams in TV's majors. Along the way, he became the first celebrity network boss, hailed as "TV's Master Showman" on Time magazine's cover.

But Silverman also suffered potshots, especially while at NBC, where he was mockingly impersonated by John Belushi on his own network's "Saturday Night Live" for failing to stem NBC's grave ratings slide.

As the face of television's high command, Silverman took flak for the overall TV medium, which was still decried as "a vast wasteland" even as America watched it hour after hour. He understood, and catered to, the audience's adolescent tastes like no other. But at the same time he played a key role in TV growing up.

And he did it wielding power on a scale unmatched by the moguls of today's fragmenting TV universe.

"It's more difficult now," says Silverman. "The bar was much higher when I was in the game. Then, the cutoff was 30." That is, your network's show needed to win at least 30 percent of the total audience tuned to any of the three broadcast networks. "If you didn't have a 30 share, you were a bum.

"I didn't even think demographics until I got to ABC," he adds. "They were the first to go for 18-to-49. But, at CBS, it was just 'Let's get 'em in the tent.'"

Drawing those vast crowds into the tent felt "great," he says, "particularly if you put something on that you were really proud of, like 'M-A-S-H,' or 'Roots'" — which, much to everyone's astonishment, including Silverman's, drew 130 million viewers for its eight-night run in January 1977.

THE BIRTH OF TV

Silverman grew up in Queens, New York, the son of a service technician who specialized in repairing a new gadget called "television," and he watched TV from its birth. By age 25, he was head of CBS Daytime (where, among other things, he set "Scooby-Doo, Where Are You!" in motion).

Today, he runs the Fred Silverman Company, a production company he launched in the mid-1980s, promptly scoring with such dramas as "Matlock," ''In the Heat of the Night" and "Perry Mason" TV movies.

Mementos of his success — vintage issues of TV Guides chronicling his hit shows; a metallic reproduction of his Time cover — decorate his offices, off Sunset Boulevard beside the home he shares with Cathy, his wife of 43 years.

Tan and slimmed down from younger days (when Life magazine described him as "a tough, gutsy, oddly boyish fellow with the build of a football guard"), Silverman sips a diet Coke and tries to account for his multi-pronged genius for talent scouting, scheduling, promotion and programming.

"It's an instinct," he says. "You acquire certain tastes. And if your taste happens to coincide with the majority of people, then you're in pretty good shape.

"But you're not always right. There were times when I stubbed my toe, and some will end up being on my tombstone — like 'Supertrain.'"

A budget-busting flop in 1979, "Supertrain" was conceived as a contemporary "Murder on the Orient Express," and "till my dying day I'll say it was a great idea. It was just totally (screwed) up in the execution. Viewers came to the show, looked at it and said, 'Oy!'"

While his tenure at NBC was dismaying, he did have his victories: "Diff'rent Strokes," ''Real People" (which pioneered reality TV) and, in "Hill Street Blues," a series that redefined TV drama in ways still being realized. He made the series commitment that led to "Cheers" and gave David Letterman his first show as headliner.

But that wasn't enough.

"By and large, it was very unpleasant," he describes the harsh spotlight trained on him as his fortunes dimmed.

Such attention was nothing new. Even back at ABC, as he was working miracles, certain media reporters "had a field day," he recalls. "I was the King of Twinkie-Vision one day, the King of Jiggle TV the next, thanks to Farrah Fawcett and 'Three's Company.'

"Those were colorful days, I will say that," he sighs without a speck of wistfulness. "If I were there now, I don't think I could make it. The networks are fighting for their lives."

Consider: During the 1976-77 season, ABC's average prime-time audience exceeded 22 million viewers. Between September 2014 and this May, CBS, now No. 1 but sharing viewers with dozens of rivals, has averaged only half that. "You say, 'My lord!' What do you do?"

If you're Fred Silverman, you set to work on your long-awaited memoir, now in its early writing stages. And you keep doing what you've done the past 30 years in your second act, making TV that other people put on the air.

Asked what's in the hopper now, Silverman delivers a mini-pitch for three projects: a drama, a kids program and a reality show. But at the same time he concedes that retirement, not more TV, might finally have a place on his schedule.

"If one of those projects sells, then I'll be (screwed)," he laughs. "What can I say? I have mixed feelings about whether I want any nibbles."

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EDITOR'S NOTE — Frazier Moore is a national television columnist for The Associated Press. He can be reached at fmoore@ap.org and at http://www.twitter.com/tvfrazier. Past stories are available at http://bigstory.ap.org/content/frazier-moore