Silverman devoted his life to programming television. He is the
only person to have held key programming positions at all of the
three traditional networks in the United States and today he owns
the Fred Silverman Company, which produces programs for those networks.
What makes Silverman unique in the history of American network television
is that he raced through network jobs while still in his thirties
and that his career mysteriously waned after having waxed so splendidly
for so long.
Silverman graduated with a Master's degree from Ohio State University
(his master's thesis analyzed programming practices at ABC) and
went to work for WGN-TV in Chicago to oversee children's programs.
Soon, however, he moved to the network level. He assumed responsibility
for daytime programming at CBS, where he later took charge of all
of CBS Entertainment programming. During his tenure at CBS, Silverman
remade the Saturday morning cartoon lineup and, in so doing, remade
the ratings--from third to first. He also helped devise the programming
strategy that brought All in the Family, The Mary Tyler Moore
Show and The Waltons to CBS. With the success of the
CBS schedule assured, Silverman moved on. In 1975, he became head
of ABC Entertainment.
1975 to 1978, Fred Silverman took ABC from ratings parity with the
other networks to ratings dominance over them. Among the shows and
mini-series he was responsible for programming were Rich Man,
Poor Man, Roots, Charlie's Angels and Starsky and Hutch.
Silverman made the "third" network a ratings power and, as some
of these program selections suggest, is credited with creating what
critics called "jiggle TV," the type of television that features
beautiful, scantily clad, frolicking women. In short, he bore partial
responsibility for programming both acclaimed and reviled. But he
demonstrated at ABC the same touch he had at CBS--an almost unerring
sense of what the public, in great numbers, would watch on television.
In 1977, a Time magazine cover story referred to Silverman as the
"man with the golden gut," ostensibly referring to his unfailing
programming instincts. At the height of his power at ABC, Silverman
left to take on the presidency of NBC.
It was there, however, that whatever abilities brought him fame
at the other two networks seemed to abandon Fred Silverman. Some
of his program selections were disastrous, (Supertrain and
Hello, Larry, an ill-conceived effort starring McLean Stevenson,
formerly of M*A*S*H). Also, without the success he had enjoyed
earlier, his mercurial behavior was less tolerable. After three
difficult years, he was replaced at NBC by Grant Tinker. Fred Silverman's
eighteen-year run with the networks was over.
left programming to make programs, but he did not enjoy immediate
success. The first years for the Fred Silverman Company were difficult,
particularly because the former program buyer was now forced to
try to sell programming to many of the persons he had alienated
at the networks. But in 1985, Silverman and partner Dean Hargrove
produced the first Perry Mason movie with Raymond Burr. It
was wildly successful and established the formula that would drive
Silverman's comeback in television. He took identifiable television
stars from the recent past and recast them in formulaic dramas.
Andy Griffith in Matlock and Carroll O'Connor in In the
Heat of the Night are but two examples. Silverman also used
his programming acumen to push for favorable time slots for his
shows. Because Silverman has enjoyed great success with his production
company, some industry observers have called him the Nixon of television.
Throughout his career in network television, Silverman was considered
a hero in the industry because he could devise program schedules
that delivered strong ratings. But during the latter stages of his
network years, some industry observers saw a danger in so much television
programming having the imprimatur of one individual. Moreover, his
critics often looked beyond the bottom line and lamented the content
of the programming used to build Silverman's various ratings empires.
His work at ABC has been particularly criticized because of messages
regarding sex and violence in the programs. Television programming
has been criticized for appealing to the lowest common denominator
in its quest for raw numbers of viewers and more than once, Silverman
has been targeted as the chief instrument of that appeal. Indeed,
columnist Richard Reeves observed in 1978 that Silverman had probably
done more to lower the standards of the viewing audience than any
Silverman's comeback, this much can be said--he returned to his
roots. His productions, using familiar faces and formulas which
have enjoyed prior television success, can be seen as part of a
larger pattern. It has been suggested that one current programming
trend is to look back to a time when network television was at its
peak. In the face of a complex and mercurial telecommunications
landscape, those involved in broadcasting seek comfort from a time
more stable. Many of the programs meeting this need are revivals,
retrospectives, or old faces in new attire. One need look no further
than the "new" Burke's Law, Columbo, or Dick Van Dyke in
Diagnosis: Murder. Silverman has capitalized on this tendency
and has very probably become its leading practitioner. In a time
when the term "auteur," or author, is being applied to television
producers, the career of Fred Silverman suggests that an auteur
could just as easily be the programmer as the program producer.
For better or worse, few individuals have had as profound an impact
on television programming for as long as Fred Silverman.
Photo courtesy of the Fred Silverman Company
SILVERMAN. Born in New York City, New York, U.S.A., 1937. Studied
at Syracuse University, New York; studied Television and Theater
Arts at Ohio State University, Athens, M.A. Worked for WGN-TV, Chicago,
1961-62; worked for WPIX-TV, New York City; director of daytime
programs, then vice president of programs for CBS-TV, New York City,
1963-75; president, ABC Entertainment, New York City, 1975-78; president
and chief executive officer, NBC, New York City, 1978; president,
Fred Silverman Company, Los Angeles, from 1981. Address: Fred Silverman
Company, 12400 Wilshire Boulevard, Suite 920, Los Angeles, California
SERIES (executive producer)
Perry Mason (movies)
1987-93 Jake and the Fatman
1988-95 In the Heat of the Night
1989, 1990-91 Father Dowling Mysteries
1993- Dick Van Dyke's Diagnosis Murder
Bedell, Sally. Up the Tube: Prime-time TV and the Silverman Years.
New York: Viking Press, 1981.
Richard. "The Dangers of Television in the Silverman
Era." Esquire (New York), 25 April 1978.
See also American
Broadcasting Company; Charlie's
Broadcasting System; Mary
Tyler Moore Show,
Broadcasting Company; United
States: Networks; Perry
Poor Man; Roots;
Starsky and Hutch;