Can 36-Year-Old Wunderkind Save NBC?

Can a 36-year-old former talent agent with a Midas touch help turn around NBC's prime time losing streak?

This afternoon, the network announced a major shakeup in its executive ranks, naming Ben Silverman as the chairman of its entertainment division and its television studio.

The smart-dressed Silverman is best known for taking foreign shows, such as "Ugly Betty," "The Office" and "The Biggest Loser," and developing them for American TV audiences. He will share his new title with Marc Graboff, who had been president of NBC Universal Television.

The other shoe to drop today was the departure of Kevin Reilly, the network's entertainment president. Although the changes had been in the works for weeks, the network's decision was forced when Reilly stepped down after reading about the plans on journalist Nikki Finke's Deadline Hollywood Web log last Friday.

Reilly had just signed a new three-year contract in February, but the network has lagged at fourth place in the ratings and its fall schedule of shows — heavy on sci-fi programs — got a lackluster reception at the recent upfront presentation to advertisers.

"I think they're a network in a lot of trouble, and someone, unfortunately, lost their job over this," said Marc Berman, ratings analyst at MediaWeek. "They're a desperate network and [Silverman] came onto a sinking ship. When a network drops to the extent that they have, you can't turn it around overnight."

In the high-stakes arena of network television, where job titles seem to change with the seasons, the job of resuscitating NBC now falls to Silverman, who was named one of People magazine's top bachelors in 2003.

After joining William Morris as the youngest division head in the agency's history in the mid-1990s, he quickly developed a hotshot reputation in the industry by helping to bring British reality hits like "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" and "Survivor" over to the United States.

"He's clever,and he has an eye for off-kilter, sarcastic comedy," said a TV producer who's worked with Silverman. "Whether he can use that to turn around NBC is another question."

The choice of Silverman surprised some observers, considering his independent streak as the CEO of Reveille, his own production company.

At Microsoft's advertising summit in Seattle, he expressed his annoyance with the networks for cutting him out of talks with advertisers, according to Advertising Age. "They don't want to connect you with us," he told the audience. "Their holy grail has been separating you from us and owning that competency. But the producers have that competency ... and we can deliver that to you without the $60 billion business on top of that."

Although he is relatively young for such a high-level network position, there are a few precedents, including his new boss, Jeff Zucker, who was named executive producer of the "Today" show at the age of 26.

"When you walk into a job like that, you have to have a background in original production," said Berman. "This guy has a very different background. He's not going to walk in and turn it around quickly. He needs at least a year, but he may bring a fresh perspective into it."

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