Silverman Out To Remake Local Broadcasting
Fred Silverman isn't done yet.
Now 76, the legendary TV programmer with the "golden gut," who during an unparalleled and extraordinary run in the 1970s totally rejuvenated CBS's schedule, transformed ABC from laggard to leader and, if you believe a certain spin of history, set NBC on a course to primetime dominance, says he can reverse TV broadcasting's long, slow viewership slide.
How? By helping stations go beyond news and once again produce their own entertainment programming.
"My feeling is that in the next five to 10 years, we're going to go back to the future," he told me in an interview earlier this week. "We're going to see more television produced by local television stations than we have since the early days of television when that’s all they had basically.
"The great strength of a local television station is its roots in the community — and never forget it. That’s the one thing that broadcasting has over cable — daily contact with what the hell is going on.
"Most of the really good television stations are doing a magnificent job of presenting news. Some of them present up to 65 hours a week of local news programming, which is quite extraordinary, and they have spent millions of dollars on personnel and equipment to do this."
With such in-house talent and production resources, he says, TV stations are capable of producing shows in just about any genre but drama — comedy, narrative reality, talk and game.
"There’s gold in their backyards that can be mined," he says. "What a lot of local stations don’t realize is that they have weathermen who are more popular in their respective communities than a lot of national personalities."
Any network affiliate in the top 50 markets should be able mount a comedy show of some kind by tapping into the local clubs, he says. "The really good comedy shows are basically four-wall shows."
Finding time for locally produced programming schedules won't be a problem, he says. Within a few years, all the broadcast networks will give up on Saturday night and give it back to affiliates, he says. And Friday nights and the flagging 10 p.m. slot may not be far behind, he adds.
Other opportunities are in daytime and on digital subchannels. With the decline of the soap opera, daytime programming is "lacking" and in need of fresh ideas and fresh programming, he says. Subchannels are great places for stations to experiment and nurture talent and new programs.
Silverman says that he is a fan of Weigel Broadcasting's Neal Sabin and what he has done with Me-TV, the digital network featuring classic TV. But the old programming cannot sustain the channel forever. Eventually, people will tire of it. Just like cable's TV Land, which started off with off-net only, Me-TV will have to spike its schedule with original fare.
A hallmark of the local TV entertainment renaissance will be live production, Silverman says. "The relevance of live TV, immediate and topical, is broadcasting's great strength. If something happens to the community that affects everybody living there, you’re right there. It doesn’t have to go to [an editor]. You just put it right on the air."
Underlying Silverman's interest in TV stations is his waning belief in the broadcast networks. The networks are trying to emulate cable, he says, but they cannot because they remain too dependent on advertisers who run from controversial programming.
"It’s just political incorrectness," he says. "You couldn’t put All In The Family on today. I doubt whether you could put M*A*S*H on the air because there are too many different pressure groups. There are too many different people saying you can’t do this or you can’t do that. It’s just not possible."
Silverman says he is encouraged that Scripps and other station groups have begun producing some of their own shows. "They’re starting to say: 'Hey, listen, we can do it ourselves, we don’t need a syndicator to come in with a piece of junk, we probably can do a lot better than that and with local personalities."
The programming would be created for local viewers, he says, but that doesn't mean that it might not also have national appeal. If a show eventually proves good enough for syndication, "that's a home run," he says, noting that Oprah and Donahue started as local shows.
Silverman's career didn't end after his turn as NBC CEO in 1981. He became a TV producer and, like any other producer, had his hits (Matlock, In the Heat of the Night and Diagnosis: Murder) and misses (Thicke of the Night and Twenty One.)
More recently, he has made a couple attempts to build online channels with original TV programming. But they hardly got past the announcements.
Now, he's returning to his roots (he started his career at WGN Chicago). He says he has plenty of ideas on how station groups can jump-start local entertainment production and is looking for broadcast partners to give them life. He says that he has already had some discussions with leading groups and will be visiting more in the coming weeks.