Last week, an item on Page Six purported to explain the source of NBC’s miserable performance in the ratings this fall. The responsible party? One Katherine Pope, aka “the Black Widow,” because “every program she touches turns to death.”
Chances are many readers had never heard of Pope, who is the president of NBC’s television production studio (which oversees such shows as Heroes, House, and The Office). And chances are Pope never imagined that she, like Sarah Palin, would become a target of anonymous attacks that distract from the more significant shortcomings of the man she supposedly serves.
“Page Six? What is Katherine Pope doing on Page Six?” a top executive at a rival network asked incredulously, adding, “It’s obvious where it came from.”
The industry’s collective assumption was that the item came, directly or not, from Pope’s boss, Ben Silverman, head of NBC. In fact, Pope has been mentioned as a possible successor to Silverman by many in the business who have been composing his corporate obituary for months.
Hollywood buzzed for weeks after agent Ari Emanuel gave Silverman a public dressing down for missing a meeting.
Hired in May 2007, Silverman was an unlikely choice to be a network “suit.” The lanky, boyish former agent ran a successful production company, but he also had a well-established penchant for partying. Rumors circulated that a company-mandated drug test had to be delayed so Silverman could pass.
But NBC was flailing and Jeff Zucker, president and CEO of NBC Universal, was chasing heat. Silverman’s production company, Reveille, had successfully borrowed program “formats” from other countries. The Office came from the British original; Ugly Betty derived from a Colombian telenovela. Silverman could be presented as a departure from old school ways of doing business.
The industry’s skepticism about the hire appeared to be justified in July, when TV critics held their annual gathering at the Hilton in Beverly Hills. NBC had no complete episodes of its new programs to show, and Silverman had to admit a spin-off of The Office that had been dangled in front of advertisers didn’t exist.
In an industry famous for backbiting, it is hardly surprising that many have been rooting against Silverman, who went from rich to richer after he took the NBC job. That’s because NBC’s parent company, GE, allowed him to keep a stake in Reveille. So in addition to owning a piece of existing shows like The Office and The Biggest Loser, Silverman was able to revive Reveille projects that had already been pitched unsuccessfully to the network, including American Gladiators and Kath & Kim.
The network set up a committee to deal with the obvious conflict of interest. (All substantive decisions involving conflicts were made by Zucker.) But that did little to quell the months of industry grousing and bad press about NBC’s favoritism toward Reveille.
The situation was meant to be resolved last February, when Silverman sold Reveille to his friend, Elisabeth Murdoch, chairman and CEO of the British television company Shine, for $125 million. But many in Hollywood eye this arrangement with suspicion, possibly because NBC still identifies all Reveille business internally as presenting a potential conflict.
Meanwhile, Silverman continued to throw wild parties and appeared to have some trouble taking care of business. There were reports of missed meetings—such as one with David Maisel, chairman of Marvel Studios (the force behind Iron Man). Hollywood was buzzing for weeks after agent Ari Emanuel gave Silverman a public dressing down for such behavior in the executive dining room at Universal Pictures.
Last summer, rumors that Silverman had been quietly packed off to rehab were so prevalent that a reporter from the trade publication TV Week made reference to it in a question-and-answer session with Silverman.
"You've heard all the rumors about you," the reporter said. "The tigers in the bathtub. NBC hiring a designated driver for you. Rehab. Does it distract you from doing your job? Have you had to make any changes to your personal life?"
Silverman replied: “I am a true member of the American society and culture and I am constantly embracing all elements of that culture.”
The issue arose again in an interview with NBC co-chairman Marc Graboff. “I don’t want to condone drug use and honestly, I don’t know about any of that stuff and don’t want to,” Graboff told the trade publication Broadcast & Cable. “If he does it, I don’t see it.”
Then, beginning with a surprisingly long trip to the Beijing Olympics, Silverman was out of town for much of August—a time when network chiefs fuss over shows that will launch in September.
During that time, Silverman popped up intermittently as a caller to best friend Ryan Seacrest’s radio show on KIIS-FM, and the two seemed to enjoy fueling speculation about their private lives. The NBC chief is known for squiring around young women, but there were so many references to West Hollywood that the website Defamer marveled, “Who knew that Silverman and Seacrest were so well-versed about the gay goings-on [there]?”
At one point, Seacrest noted that Silverman was celebrating his birthday (his 38th) and told him, “You are my cake, I am your candle.” When Seacrest asked Silverman what he was wearing, the line went dead.
A few weeks later, in September, Silverman accepted an award for NBC’s commitment to diversity at Outfest. “I debated whether or not to say this, as I am a bit of a press target,” he said. According to an account in The Advocate, those in the audience collectively inhaled, “waiting for him to come out.” No such luck. “No, it’s not me,” Silverman continued. “But my mother is gay.”
None of this would matter if Silverman had come up with an outsize hit for NBC. But his reinvention of television hasn’t produced success. He greenlighted several shows, including Kath & Kim, which is based on an Australian original, without the benefit of a pilot —a move intended to cut costs. But the show’s lackluster ratings turned out to be an object lesson on the value of pilots.
Silverman has been given credit for cutting profitable deals with advertisers; for example, partnering with General Motors on the series My Own Worst Enemy with Christian Slater. Silverman said the new mantra was that ratings were less important than profit margins. But ratings do matter: My Own Worst Enemy was canceled after airing only four times.
Despite it all, a source inside NBC-Universal says Silverman seems to have held onto the confidence of his boss. Zucker was widely disparaged in Hollywood when he ran NBC, the insider says, and left filled with resentment at the town. “So when the press and the agents go after Ben, Jeff thinks Ben must be doing something right,” he says.
Besides, isn’t it obvious? It’s all Katherine Pope’s fault.
Kim Masters covers the business of entertainment for NPR News. She is the author of The Keys to the Kingdom: The Rise of Michael Eisner and the Fall of Everybody Else.