Plugging Away: A New Breed of Peacock

It's August and that means we are on the eve of the first trial of Ben Silverman, the spark plug tapped by NBC chairman Jeff Zucker to fire up his sputtering peacock network. The new fall TV season shall soon arrive, and although Ben's predecessor, Kevin Reilly, was responsible for laying out the prime-time schedule, Ben's response to the way it plays will be closely watched.

Already Ben has been rearranging the deck chairs on the big boat as an iceberg looms on the horizon. He has smartly juggled show slots, put a Norman Lear comedy on fast-track development and signed a first-look deal with an indie film producer.

Meantime, Madison Avenue quietly prepares for a land grab. Ben is a well-known fob, or Friend of Brands. He built his successful production shingle Reveille LLC in part on the backs of a handful of lucrative integration and content creation deals with American Express and other kahunas that put skin into shows like "The Restaurant" and "Blow Out." Such mediocre material could not have seen the greenlight of day at the networks without the deep-pocket production support of advertisers. And now word on the street is Ben's buddies are about to call in their chits.

The signs are there: Ben is reportedly going to revive "American Gladiator," an inane '80s competition show that featured early brand integrations from Club Med; and most tellingly, he's bailing the acme of branded entertainment excess, "The Apprentice," out of bankruptcy.

Will Ben be the second coming, the man who will save the overripe Madison & Vine movement minutes before its expiration date? When shows on Mr. Reilly's slate lose viewers and advertisers start screaming, will he step in with make-good programs starring Uncle Ben, Erin of Esurance and M&M plain and peanut, if just to catch up with ABC, which already has the Geico Cavemen in its fall lineup?

Let's hope not. Ben is no simple shill. He is a talented professional with lots of hands-on experience and he has already learned a few lessons the hard way, producing product placement burlesques that flopped like dying fish. Remember "Meet Mr. Mom" on NBC, a reality laffer about the thrills of using Glad trash bags and other adventures in packaged goods?

Look at his recent successes, "The Office," "Ugly Betty," etc. These are entertainment, pure and simple, and right now he will need entertainment - not integration - to thrive. A good sign: his first initiative after being named co-chair was to acquire the rights for NBC to produce an English-language version of the Colombian hit telenovela, "Without Breasts There is No Paradise," about a poor woman who becomes a prostitute to pay for breast enhancement surgery and in the process becomes involved with a drug dealer. Prudish American brands will think twice about embedding themselves in that hot tamale.

Ben's M.O. will change, but what about his mojo? He's looking pretty serious and unfriendly in those NBC publicity shots standing next to Mr. Excitement - his boss, Jeff Zucker.

Let's just pray Ben doesn't abandon those delirious wild-eyed entrances, the shirt wide open at the neck, untucked tails flapping in the wind and those spontaneous Blackberry shout-outs: "Awesome," "Love it" and "YES."

I remember working with him (at another agency) on a typically ambitious deal. He was developing a daytime syndicated talk show with Brooke Shields and showed up at our offices with his star for a meeting with our client, a top packaged goods company. It was pouring rain. Brooke walked several blocks from her Soho apartment and arrived drenched. Ben somehow breezed in crisp and dry, no briefcase, not even a pencil, and he was wearing torn jeans and a perfectly white T-shirt. "Only he could pull off the T-shirt," said my client later. She agreed to write a seven-figure check to develop the project. Was it Brooke or Ben? Brooke eventually bailed from the project, while tenacious Ben hung on, shopping for a new host. My client hung on, too. It had to be the T-shirt.

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