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The Man with the Golden Gut

24 minute read

From his office on the 38th floor of the ABC building in Manhattan, Fred Silverman can peer into the office of CBS President Robert Wussler, just across 53rd Street. Occasionally the two men wave at each other from the heights, like rival aviators saluting before a dogfight. But sometimes—when he is trying to woo a star away from another network or plan a secret strategy—Silverman, head of ABC’s programming, draws his drapes: if he can look into Wussler’s office, Wussler can look into his, and Silverman does not want anyone, especially anyone at CBS, to know where the Red Baron will strike next.

Invigorated by Silverman’s frenzied aggressiveness and unorthodox tactics, ABC—television’s perennial also-ran in ratings, revenues and prestige—has all but obliterated its competitors in evening prime time. Last spring, at the end of the 1976-77 season, the network had the nation’s four top-rated shows and seven of the top ten. CBS, which had been the premier network since television came of age in the ’50s, managed to squeeze only two into the top ten. NBC, the granddaddy of all the networks, was able to place only one on those elevated rungs.

Translated into Nielsen points, the language TV people are most fluent in, ABC had a Nielsen average of 21.5, compared with 18.7 for CBS and 18.0 for NBC. Since each Nielsen point means a million viewers and is worth about $36 million in advertising revenue on a full-season basis, ABC’S lead was equal to $100.8 million —and that is a language anyone can understand.

There is no parallel in the history of broadcasting—and few in any well-established industries—to ABC’s sudden rise. It is as if, in the space of two years, Chrysler had surged past General Motors and sent Ford reeling back to Dearborn. Or —to stretch the truth only a bit—as if China had discovered some mysterious, all-powerful Z-bomb and in victorious glee ordered both the White House and the Kremlin dismantled and shipped, boards and nails, to Peking.

ABC has raided the other networks for affiliated stations, convincing station owners that they will be able to ask more money from local advertisers if they are connected with ABC hits. One month the NBC affiliate in San Diego or Charlotte, N.C., makes the switch. Another month it is the CBS station in Providence or Albany, N.Y. In the past two years ABC has added 15 stations to its web, for a total of 195. CBS and NBC are still ahead in the number of stations, with 204 and 208 respectively, but no one will guess how long traditional loyalties will survive the siren lure of ABC’s Nielsens.

The expectation is that ABC will do even better this year than last—perhaps topping CBS’s share of the market in 1968-69, the peak season of its many good years. Instead of consolidating his gains and hanging on to proven shows, as the programmer of the top network usually does, Silverman has torn apart ABC’s schedule in search of even bigger victories. “Freddie’s like a shark’s belly. He can’t get enough,” says Producer Robert Wood, who was CBS president when Silverman was that network’s programmer. To start with, Silverman threw away three moderately successful shows— Wonder Woman, The Bionic Woman and The Tony Randall Show—on the theory that they were beginning to fade. CBS quickly grabbed Wonder Woman and Tony Randall, and NBC was happy to pick up The Bionic Woman.

Then, in a move that infuriated his competitors—and cost the three networks a total of perhaps $17 million in advertising revenue—he boldly moved the TV season up two weeks, from Sept. 19 to Sept. 6, the day after Labor Day and the time when millions of Americans, their summer over, will once again focus on the tube. Finally, doubling the intake of martinis at network lunches all over Manhattan, he decided to launch ABC’s season with a $7 million blockbuster: six nights in a row of Washington: Behind Closed Doors, the fictionalized saga of the rise and fall of President Richard M. Nixon (see box).

A similar Silverman strategy last January made Roots the most successful television production in history and put ABC firmly on top for the second half of the 1976-77 season. Washington, reasons Silverman, may do the same for the new season.

Each night, all week long, the two-hour segments will be chockablock full of promotion spots for other ABC shows, and viewers will, Silverman believes, get into the habit of watching ABC. Says CBS’s Wussler: “There never has been a season so complicated. Or so confusing.”

Down the street at NBC, Program Vice President Paul Klein talks angrily in terms of war. NBC, he says, must stop Silverman’s daring attack in the first week. “What ABC did [with Washington] was to try to position themselves without competition—an arrogant move,” he told NBC affiliates. “It’s essential to knock Washington off on Tuesday, and if we can injure Washington on Wednesday, then we will have done a job on them. When the numbers come in, they will either have a success or a huge failure—and the season will be over.”

Klein’s analysis is overdrawn—the failure of Washington would dampen but not ruin ABC’s season —yet his reasoning is essentially correct. The course of the season will be strongly influenced by the first week. A measure of the impoverishment of CBS and NBC, however, is the quality of their counterattacks on Washington that first, fateful Tuesday night. Both have scheduled movies that failed at the box office and with the critics. CBS will air 1976’s Logan’s Run, a futuristic science-fiction thriller in which global overcrowding has dictated that people be put to death at the age of 30. NBC will carry 1975’s The Hindenburg, in which George C. Scott tries to prevent the disaster that befell Nazi Germany’s greatest dirigible.

Otherwise the new season will be much like the last, with only a few variations. Violence will be toned down, in response to strong pressure from Congress and the nation’s parents. At ABC, even a blood-and-guts show like Starsky and Hutch will supposedly have lighter plots and concentrate on the relationship between the two stars. Comedy will also be in, as will family shows like Family or Eight Is Enough, two of Silverman’s favorites.

If it sounds like the ’50s at ABC, it is —with one exception: a sexual soap opera called … Soap. (Soap is one of the few shows that have ever created controversy even before they went on the air (TIME, July 11). Church groups have denounced it, the opposition has derided it, and some advertisers have pulled away from it. Even a few of ABC’S own affiliates have announced that they will not carry it but will stick with the usual mouthwash instead. Soap will not shock veterans of the late-night Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman, but it is daring, and perhaps tasteless, for ABC to carry such a show in prime time. If the reaction is too strong against it, the series could hurt the entire schedule. But if it hits, it would give ABC the same anchor Tuesday night that CBS had Saturday night with All in the Family, another once daring show.

Silverman is clearly nervous—and a little defensive—about the show’s reception. “I believe that Soap will present very positive models and will lead,” he maintains. “I say that because I think that the underpinning of the show is the sanctity of the family unit—believe it or not. There is a scene between a mother and her daughter that will make you cry. Now my feeling is that if you car get involved enough in a program that when two of the characters start communicating with each other to the point where you’re moved —then that’s a good program ”

When Silverman says that the scene in Soap will bring tears, he is really saying that he has already cried while watching it, will cry again when it comes on the air and yet again when it goes into reruns. What makes him the best programmer in television today is the fact that he is the best viewer working in television today. Silverman, 39, does not have to pause and think what 60 million viewers will want to see: he knows, or usually knows, because he is one of them. His likes are theirs, and his dislikes are theirs. He was born with perfect pitch for American pop TV taste. “He’s the man with the golden gut,” says Bonny Dore, a former ABC director of variety shows. “He knows instinctively what works and what doesn’t.” From Irwin Segelstein, Silverman’s counterpart at NBC, comes similar and perhaps, given the source, more telling praise. Says he: “Freddie has some strange umbilical relation to the viewer.”

Unlike many TV executives who watch even their own shows only when duty requires, Silverman loves looking at TV, especially the products of his own network. “He really lights up watching those things,” says Producer David Gerber. “He literally would like to get inside the TV and be one of the characters.”

One ABC vice president remembers attending an affiliates’ meeting in Hawaii with Silverman. While everyone else was playing golf or tennis, Silverman was found under a blanket on the beach, his eyes transfixed by a small, battery-powered TV. Once, in a state of great excitement, he called CBS Executive Perry Lafferty into his office to watch a scene in a soap opera. “It was a routine hospital bed scene, with the man standing beside the bed of the woman he loves,” remembers Lafferty. “But I looked over at Freddie, and tears were rolling down his cheeks.”

As head of programming, Silverman does not just schedule shows the way a train dispatcher schedules runs into Grand Central Station. Often—to the dismay of producers, directors and writers —he becomes producer, director and writer. He reads the script of every new show, pilots of shows, and potential pilots of shows. “I never worked so hard in my life as when Freddie was working for me at CBS,” says Bob Wood. “He’d give me scripts to take home at night, and then call a half-hour after I got home to ask how I liked them. He knows what goes into every pot, just like a chef.”

Some program execs look for plot.

Others look for action. Silverman looks for strong personality. Says he: “I think the thing that makes a successful show an enduring show is well-delineated, attractive, appealing characters. Whether you’re talking about I Love Lucy or Amos and Andy on the radio, it’s the characters that determine whether the show is going to be a success.”

At Silverman’s order, a scene from Charlie’s Angels was rewritten to make each angel not only look but also sound different. “You must know that one character will say a line one way and another would say it differently,” Silverman told the producers. “You must define these characters better.” Originally, Writer Abby Mann wanted Kojak to be more human and more fallible. But Silverman wanted him tailored to fit the style of Star Telly Savalas. Now, complains Mann, who is no longer involved in the Kojak series, “Kojak is imperturbable. He’s always right. He has become exactly the reverse of what I intended.”

Silverman lavishes care and energy on casting his characters. Watching tests, he will say, “I hate her, she’s terrible. Roll —next, next!” Or he will leap from his chair and shout, “That’s her!” In his eyes, characters do not even have to be human. He will spend just as much time listening to a shark’s voice for a children’s cartoon as he will in discussing stars for a big-budget show in prime time.

Sometimes, in fact, he will spend even more time on children’s programming, which is where he started out 15 years ago at CBS and which remains a first love. Last January, recalls Squire Rushnell, ABC’s vice president for children’s programs, the children’s staff sat down with Freddie to discuss new ideas. One suggestion was to have three girls discover a caveman frozen in a block of ice; they would defrost him, and the four of them would go off on adventures. As Rushnell recalls, the concept seemed so absurd that even as he outlined it, his eyes rolled in embarrassment. Freddie, however, was mesmerized. Pacing the room, gesturing excitedly with his hands, he conjured up the caveman with his fingertips.

“Yeah,” he said. “He’s about this high, and he has a big, furry coat. He’s a little guy, but”—at this point Silverman began bellowing—”HE HAS A GREAT BIG VOICE! He eats everything, and everything is yum, yum, yum.” Duly christened Captain Caveman, the little guy will be seen on Saturday mornings this fall in Captain Caveman & the Teenangels.

His keen eye for characters has made Silverman the master of the spinoff. Intrigued by Bea Arthur’s portrayal of Maude on an episode of All in the Family, Silverman was soon on the phone to Producer Norman Lear with the suggestion that Maude be given her own program. Fish, similarly, was spun off Barney Miller, and Laverne and Shirley was spun off Happy Days.

Sometimes Silverman can effect a half spinoff. Happy Days, for example, was a fairly popular show that was beginning to run out of steam when Silverman decided to give greater prominence to Henry Winkler, “the Fonz.” Last season Happy

Days was the most popular show in the country.

For a time Freddie thought of giving the Fonz his own show, but he discarded the notion. The success of Happy Days, Silverman decided, depends on the interplay between the superhip Fonz and the superstraight Cunningham family. The Fonz alone would be overpowering, while the Cunninghams, left to themselves, would be cloying and out of touch with the times.

Silverman’s instincts can betray him.

Not all of his ideas and not all of his spin-offs have had happy results. The list of his failed shows is longer than he would like to remember: Mr. T and Tina, Me and the Chimp, The Captain and Tennille, The Nancy Walker Show, Blansky ‘s Beauties, The Bill Cosby Show, Planet of the Apes, Calucci’s Department. “I’m sure that somewhere,” he admits, “there is a cemetery for dead TV shows, with many tombstones bearing the name Silverman.” One of the things that separates him from other programmers, however, is that when all attempts at resuscitation fail, he is willing to dispatch his failures to the bleak wastes of Silverman Hill.

At CBS, where he was chief programmer for five years, Silverman had to move more slowly, with the due deliberation that that august organization expects. At

ABC he has found his spiritual home: a company that is as aggressive, hungry and fast-moving as he is, unencumbered by the bureaucratic snares that come from long years of success. Without so much as making a phone call, Silverman can —and often does—guarantee the commitment of hundreds of thousands of ABC’s dollars to a producer. According to lore, Silverman can give a producer a yes or no within 15 minutes. B. Donald (“Bud”) Grant, his counterpart at CBS, will say, “I’ll think it over.” At NBC, Irwin Segelstein will say, “We’re having a meeting on it in two weeks.”

Though Silverman is given credit for helping boost ABC to the top, most industry observers feel that it would have got there anyway—if not now, then some time soon. Partly because it had fewer affiliates in the boondocks and partly because CBS’s relatively sophisticated programs had cornered the older, educated audience, ABC was forced to court younger, urban viewers with fast action, sex and unsophisticated comedies. When the “family hour,” the 60 minutes from 8 to 9 o’clock, was instituted in 1975, banishing blood and gore to later hours, ABC was ready with its comedies. Simple enough to appeal to kids, they were yet not so simple as to turn off parents. The mistakes of CBS and NBC, neither of which had done as much as ABC in developing new shows, also helped ABC. About two years ago, CBS’s successes seemed to age all at once, while NBC seemed nearly paralyzed by corporate indecision.

ABC was also wise in the choice of Fred Pierce as president in 1974. The best-rounded of all the major network executives, with experience in research, sales, promotion, as well as programming, Pierce moved deftly to take advantage of his rivals’ confusion. Almost immediately he tried to hire Silverman away from CBS. It took a while, but finally, in May 1975, Silverman crossed the street. Silverman’s own success is tied to Pierce’s, and, together, the two form the best team in TV.

Why CBS let Silverman go so easily is a mystery, but Silverman’s reasons for leaving are clear enough. Although he was certainly well paid—around $250,000 a year at CBS—he was not given what the trade appropriately calls “keeping money”: stock options and other benefits that enable an executive to build personal capital. (His salary at ABC is reportedly about the same now, but will rise to $350,000 next year. In addition, he has stock options and all the perks previously denied ) Worse, he was denied entrance to “the club,” an elite group that really runs CBS. Following an unwritten edict from Chairman William Paley, CBS has always been fiercely proud of its image. How an executive looks is often as important as what he does. He must dress right, talk right and live at the right address. He must, in sum, always look as if he had just stepped out of Brooks Brothers and was on his way to have lunch with his former classmates at the Yale Club.

It was an image that Freddie, the son of a television repairman from Rego Park, Queens, seemed to rebuff every time he walked down the hall. He would argue IN A BIG VOICE for the shows he wanted, and rarely failed to point out the mistakes of those above him. CBS tolerated him, but did not like him. He never got the inflated title he might have expected —senior or executive vice president—and he was not on the limousine list. Says a friend: “Freddie’s a blue-collar worker —he actually reads scripts and watches shows—and he doesn’t do things in the white-collar CBS way.”

Money has never mattered to Freddie,” adds Mike Dann, Silverman’s mentor and the man who preceded him as CBS’s top programmer. “What he really wanted was respect for the tremendous role he was playing in the company. Freddie quit almost 250 times at CBS, but, far more important, during at least half his time there I can count three network presidents who wanted to fire him.” Silverman’s own explanation for his leave-taking is the most poignant: “I found I wasn’t laughing any more.”

Silverman is probably the first network programmer who grew up laughing —and crying—at TV. Since his father was a television repairman, his family started sitting around the tube earlier than most. After high school in Rego Park, a middleclass, largely Jewish neighborhood 20 minutes by subway from Manhattan, Freddie went to Syracuse University in upstate New York. He majored in broadcasting at Syracuse’s School of Speech and Dramatic Arts and then went to graduate school at Ohio State. In 1959, with what now seems like inspired prescience, he wrote his master’s thesis on ABC. “The phrase, ‘a young, vitalic network,’ is the key to the future for ABC,” he wrote. “ABC should provide updated, youthful [programming], with a balance of all program types especially conceived and plotted for the younger, larger family groups, a ‘something for everybody’ schedule.”

After graduation he found a job at Station WGN-TV in Chicago. His flair for promotion gave him two immediate successes. He bought up a string of kids’ movies from the ’50s, featuring Bomba, the Jungle Boy. He edited them down to an hour each, and added a dramatic opening of mysterious jungle drums. The kids loved them. He also bought old adventure films, such as Robin Hood and Tom Sawyer. Renaming them Family Classics, he dared to run them on Friday nights, usually the province of action and comedy. He had another smash, and Family Classics outdrew even Bob Hope. WON is still running the series.

ABC had not been much impressed by Freddie’s thesis on ABC (he had sent copies with his resume to all the networks), but Mike Dann at CBS was, and he hired Silverman, a mere 25 at the time, to run daytime programming in 1962. Says Dann: “Reading the thesis I could see the kid had instincts that were unbelievable.” Some of his friends trace Freddie’s strong emphasis on character over plot to that time, when he was concerned mainly with soap operas and children’s shows. Kids make their minds up fast, his friends note, and they like shows with simple, vivid characters. “You can translate that knowledge of what kids watch into prime time,” observes Rushnell. “The top ten shows at ABC today—including Happy Days, Laverne and Shirley, and The Six Million Dollar Man—are also the tops with kids, ages two to eleven.”

That, of course, is precisely the point critics keep making about ABC’S programming: Silverman may know what people will watch, but he has done little to give them anything truly good. “ABC has unsophisticated viewers, kids and people who think like kids,” says NBC’s Klein. “I call ’em dummies. Fred is a master of light, airy, stupid shows.” A more objective analyst is Norman Lear, who has sold shows to all three networks. “Silverman has flair, courage, and conviction, three of the four prerequisites of a showman,” says Lear. “But the rarest of showmen is also creative. Let the world judge if he has that fourth ingredient. It is a judgment I prefer not to make.”

After seven years with the kids’ shows, Silverman took Dann’s place as programming chief. His legacy to CBS includes, at least in part, the success of All in the Family and The Mary Tyler Moore Show, as well as Cannon, Barnaby Jones and Maude. Part credit because, as he says, “at CBS there were always six people with varying degrees of voice in a decision.”

With only one other voice to listen to at ABC (Pierce is the only one he must check with), Silverman is now able to take risks and gamble for high stakes. He did not think up the idea for Roots, for example, but it was his notion to present it on eight consecutive nights, one of the chief reasons for its sizzling success. Says he: “To get the greatest impact you just had to sweep people into it—and that was the way to do it.”

For most of his professional life, Freddie has been buying shows—and killing them. Instead of finding power an ego booster or an exhilarating narcotic, he seems to look upon it as just another reason to worry. “He is brilliant but masochistic,” says Dann, who, aside from Silverman’s wife Cathy, may know him best. “He is a very, very compulsive, driven man.”

When he was at CBS, says Mark Carliner, “he was always in in the morning before me, and he stayed after I left in the evening. He thought nothing of calling you up at 1 or 2 o’clock in the morning with an idea. He would drive people crazy. I love Freddie, but I would never work for him again.”

His weight goes up and down, and he frets about diets. “I put on weight a couple of months ago because of the furor about Soap,” he complains. “I ended up eating, drinking and smoking too much.” His eyes are strangely hooded, like Bert Lance’s, as if he has just awakened—or is about to go to sleep. He is graying early, and he could easily be mistaken for someone ten years older than he is. In person, Silverman is affable but tentative. He does not shake hands but thrusts forth his fingers instead, as if afraid that the full package might not be returned. At CBS he was known as a hypochondriac who would run off about once a week for an EKG at Roosevelt Hospital. “He just doesn’t have the capacity to relax,” says a former CBS colleague. Just being around him “can make you break out in little beads of perspiration,” adds the otherwise cool ABC vice president Ed Vane.

He has worked, if that is conceivable, even harder at ABC, determined to put it on top and keep it there. “He’s fearful and panicked and fixing and playing, as if he were losing not winning,” marvels one friend. A puzzle? Not really. “To Freddie,” explains Dann, “it isn’t enough to succeed. The other guy has to fail.”Silverman says somewhat the same thing, but less bluntly: “I think there is a philosophy that is good no matter what you are doing. That is to always act as if you’re in last place. You just shouldn’t take success for granted, because you can turn around one day and say, ‘My Lord, it is all gone.’ ”

These days, Freddie is at pains to dispute the stories of his driven nature. “You really have to start separating the man from the myth,” he says. Far from watching the set every waking hour, he says, “I look at very little TV at home, unless I have to or unless a cassette comes in and it is an emergency.” Yes, he admits, there is a three-TV unit in his new apartment overlooking Central Park, but it has not even been hooked up yet. Really, he says, his family—Cathy, to whom he has been married for six years, and his children, Melissa, 5, and William, 8 months—are far more important to him than his job.

There is, doubtless, truth in what he says. His closest friends have noticed a mellowing since Freddie became a family man; by all accounts, he is a devoted husband and father, and he will often break off conversations to the West Coast with a sigh: “Gotta go home and tell the kids a story.”

Aside from tales for the kids, Silverman rarely reads anything but scripts; when he does, his tastes run to popular bestsellers like James Clavell’s Shogun. Though he now has the use of a company limo, he and Cathy, an attractive woman with short, dark hair, live in most ways like Middle Americans. Their apartment is furnished like a suburban split-level, and when they buy paintings, they try them out first on the walls, just to make sure that they like the colors. Freddie is vague about the artists’ names.

Still, what seems mellow to Silverman would send most people rushing for the Valium, and Freddie cannot walk past a TV set without stopping. Like Captain Caveman, everything he sees he devours, and nearly everything is yum, yum, yum.

No one—not a Freddie Silverman, or a Mike Dann, or a Bill Paley—can tell forever what the fickle public wants. Silverman knows better than anyone that some day his crystal ball will say action when it should have said comedy, or vice versa. And as he turns 40, the strain is becoming clear, even to him. “It isn’t fun any more,” he says. “It used to be. When I joined CBS, it was terrific. You made a couple of changes in midseason and put on a couple of summer shows, and that was all there was to it. Now it is just like a Turkish bath. Every morning you wake up and they’re scheduling this and we’re changing that. There are 15 seasons and 180 specials, and it is a totally different business, the most competitive, I would imagine, in the entire world.”

But who, Freddie is asked, is responsible for all that turmoil if not Fred Silverman? He pauses, as if to consider all that he has wrought, and then laughs: “That’s right, isn’t it?”

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