Clash of the Titans: Silverman vs. Zucker

The media has a fascination with both Jeff Zucker and Ben Silverman. It's a bit tired, but not entirely unjustified. Both have enjoyed extraordinary opportunities to influence pop culture and the changing face of the entertainment business. Several years ago, they joined forces at NBC Universal and their troubled, aborted marriage continues to draw interest.

Silverman produced a string of hits before taking over entertainment at NBC. How could he fail to do much during his tenure there? Zucker, NBCU CEO, has made extraordinary hires on the cable side. How could he have bumbled so badly on the broadcast side, especially when Silverman's predecessor is doing well now at Fox?

On Monday, Zucker and Silverman were headed in different directions as they appeared at the NATPE convention in back-to-back fireside chats.

Zucker will leave NBCU on Friday as Comcast takes over. Silverman is moving speedily with a new venture. Zucker said he doesn't have a clue what he'll do Monday morning, though that's hard to believe. He suggested he may want to return to producing, where he was a rock star in leading the "Today" show for years. He said his fondest memories during nearly two and a half decades at NBC involve news and sports producing.

Last month, Zucker indicated -- in somewhat emotional terms -- his biggest failure at NBCU was an inability to resuscitate the NBC prime-time line-up. That business represents only about 5% of company profits, but "105% of our perception." On Monday, the topic didn't come up as Zucker looked relaxed on stage.

Yet, Silverman, who played a large role in the struggle, referenced it in light of his new digital-oriented Electus studio taking a different operational tack. Silverman didn't mention Zucker directly, but suggested internal issues contributed to his inability to blossom during his two years at NBC, starting in 2007.

To be fair, there is much speculation about what led to Silverman leaving NBC in 2009; network executives aren't likely to agree with some of his assessments.

Still, Silverman noted that at Electus, various departments communicate with one another constantly. Business is viewed holistically. If the creative group has a show concept, but needs advertiser support, there's a quick call to the sales team. Not the case at NBC during his run, he said.

"Something I recognized inside a large company was that there were so many silos in the big-company structures that kept the key stakeholders apart from each other," Silverman said. "Meaning the person who ran advertising didn't communicate on a daily basis with the person who ran the creative. Or, the person who ran the secondary distribution or the international distribution, didn't talk on a daily basis with the person green-lighting the content or the programming."

Silverman has built his own team at IAC-owned Electus. On Monday, he announced that the company would finance a new TV studio inside its walls, led by former MTV programmers Tony DiSanto and Liz Gately.

At NBC, Silverman said he wasn't able to do so satisfactorily. He brought in Teri Weinberg from his production firm Reveille in a top post, but said he was never able to establish his own team. And that prevented him from injecting new energy into a somewhat stagnant culture.

"You can't do it alone, because the people who have done it for the 30 years before you got there. [They] have watched 17 people take that chair and then move on -- they're basically entrenched in the way they do their business, and they're going to continue to do it in the same way," Silverman said.

Silverman said new NBC entertainment chief Bob Greenblatt's efforts to make changes as he takes the job is smart.

Among Silverman's initiatives at NBC was a deal to integrate the Ford Mustang into a new version of the "Knight Rider" and co-financing "Friday Night Lights" with DirecTV. But he said NBC didn't fit his personality. "If you are an entrepreneur, it's really hard not to be an entrepreneur, and that's something that I just very much realized."

Yet, Zucker's tenure at NBCU had him as an entrepreneur and risk-taker. Perhaps, most notably was the partnership with News Corp. to launch Hulu. The site, with its slew of free content, now appears to be a potential impetus for cord-cutters.

"You have to remember that when we formed Hulu, people were stealing our content and building businesses [with] piracy," Zucker said. "And [it] was an attempt to really deal with that, and I think we have successfully done that."

Zucker said NBCU was determined to avoid the fate of the music industry's inability to adapt to the Web world. He added NBC has seen no evidence that online distribution is chipping away at traditional viewership.

And as online consumption grows, Hulu is in a position to capitalize. Unlike DVR-enabled viewing, ads on Hulu can't be skipped. The networks also can control the ad formats and loads, and collect valuable data to use to attract advertisers. (How much of a say NBCU will have in Hulu's direction going forward is up in the air, due to concessions it had to get the Comcast merger cleared.)

Zucker defended not just the Hulu formation, but deal-making with Netflix. In part, he said Netflix helped replace revenues NBCU risked losing with the traditional back-end, syndication market changing.

On Monday, Zucker moved from sovereign to soothsayer. Over the next three to five years, he said there will be "a continuing move toward mobile ... making content available on different screens. How we get paid for that is really the question."

One thing's for sure, the next three to three years will bring plenty of speculation, fascination and interpretation about what Zucker and Silverman are up to.

Tags: television, trends, tv
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