Ben Silverman’s Critique of Slate

And other illuminating moments at the NBC Infront.

Ben Silverman

The hype for the fall TV season began early this year with the “NBC Infront: Primetime 08/09 Upfront Presentation.” There were many sound reasons for NBC to jump the traditional upfront week—the mid-May period when broadcasters seduce $9 billion out of advertisers—and they include the paralysis of the writers’ strike, the emergence of a full-year programming schedule, the chance of more extensive product placements, and NBC’s fourth-place ratings. Ben Silverman, co-chairman of NBC’s entertainment division, called it “a perfect storm,” which is his favorite cliché. The fact of NBC’s owning both the broadcast rights to the Beijing Olympics and the next Super Bowl? “A perfect storm.” Tina Fey’s minting as a superstar? “Perfect storm.” These days, the operative question in Burbank and at 30 Rock is, What would a nor’easter do?

To be sure, NBC’s scaled-back presentation is disappointing on many levels. There are no clips to view, no actors or producers to chat with, no open bars to assault. But I’ve got liquor at home. Further, attending an upfront involves endless jostling with hundreds upon hundreds of rudely self-satisfied ad buyers, and the only jerk to deal with on yesterday’s conference call was Silverman, a guy who recently labeled his peers at other networks graceless morons in the presence of Esquire’s Matthew Belloni. Silverman seems to have instigated a glorious new era in executive-level trash talk, with a Fox programmer today telling Variety, apropos of NBC’s plans for the fall, “They’re making grandiose statements. … Everything they’re saying now, they could say in May. The difference is, they’re doing it with shows that don’t exist.”

Those nonexistent shows represent the most uniformly escapist lineup of debuts in television history. The dramas include Knight Rider (as in KITT), Merlin (as in Camelot), Crusoe (as in Defoe and scheduled to air on Friday), The Listener (about a mind-reading paramedic, Bringing Out the Dead meets Medium), and My Own Worst Enemy (with Christian Slater as a soccer dad/superspy killing machine). Silverman described the hero of The Philanthropist as a cross between James Bond and Robin Hood, but I prefer to think of him as a hybrid of Bruce Wayne and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Then there’s Kings, a modern-day retelling of David and Goliath starring Ian McShane. It represents, according to Bill Carter, “a joint promotion with the Liberty Mutual insurance company. … The themes of the show are meant to be consistent with Liberty Mutual’s ‘Responsibility Project.’ ” You may recognize the Responsibility Project from those commercials—”Responsibility. What’s your policy?”—depicting altruists engaged in such acts as helping short people reach things on high shelves and not running over dogs.

On the reality-show tip, NBC will introduce Chopping Block, a restaurant show from the only chef in England with a temper worse than Gordon Ramsay’s—Marco Pierre White, of Quo Vadis, L’Escargot, and, once upon a time, Mario Batali’s night terrors. But the man of the moment in the reality realm is Thom Beers, creator of such manful occupational odysseys as the History Channel’s Ice Road Truckers and Discovery’s Deadliest Catch. He’ll be expanding the subgenre with Shark Taggers and America’s Toughest Jobs. On the latter show, regular Joes will serially toil as loggers, wildcat oil drillers, and assistants to network executives.

The new comedies include an Office spinoff, a pre-Election Day primetime run of a Saturday Night Live spinoff, and Molly Shannon’s Kath and Kim. Regarding the last—an adaptation of a mother-daughter laugh-fest from Australia—Silverman mentioned having put Selma Blair through “a Darryl Zanuck-type screen test,” which struck me as odd. Though Zanuck, like many a mogul, viewed film of novice actors before offering them contracts, his most famous contribution to the casting process involved meeting would-be starlets on his couch ‘round about 4 p.m. When I asked Silverman whether he meant that line as a joke about hooking up with his employees, he said, “Ah, Slate, Slate. … You deliver the highbrow every single time. I’ll pass on your question.” You brought it up, dude.

In all likelihood, Silverman meant nothing at all and was just bullshitting. The Wall Street Journal’s Rebecca Dana today quotes him likening himself to P.T. Barnum, who of course thought he knew how often suckers were born.