Ben Silverman leaves NBC, gets backing from Barry Diller

Hollywood was abuzz about NBC's future on Monday as one of television's most influential and controversial programming chiefs, NBC Universal's Ben Silverman, said he's leaving prime time's No. 4 network to launch an Internet production firm.

He was replaced by Jeff Gaspin, widely considered CEO Jeff Zucker's heir apparent at General Electric's GE TV, movie and theme park power. Gaspin will continue to oversee NBC Universal's entertainment cable channels (including USA, SyFy and Bravo), Spanish-language network Telemundo, TV stations and program syndication efforts.

As Gaspin takes on his new position as chairman of NBC Universal Television Entertainment, he's "not ready to share" his views about how NBC's programming might change, including whether he'll order more scripted sitcoms and dramas as opposed to reality shows.

His first goal is "building more confidence" around the network and its fall schedule, which includes a risky plan to replace dramas at 10 p.m. ET on weeknights with a talk show starring Jay Leno.

"NBC has to make progress," Gaspin says.

That didn't happen in the two years that Silverman managed NBC's schedule. The producer of hit shows including The Office and The Biggest Loser became a strong advocate of reality shows and product placements, essentially ads integrated into the entertainment itself. But his efforts were overshadowed by deteriorating ratings, the Hollywood writers strike, the recession and embarrassing reports of his hard-partying lifestyle.

"The only surprise is that Zucker let (Silverman) go this long," says Larry Gerbrandt of Media Valuation Partners. "I can't remember a network head who got such bad press. With the network in fourth place and not a lot working, (Silverman's departure) was inevitable."

The broadcast network will end 2009 with $120.6 million in cash flow, down 62% from 2007, on revenue of about $4 billion, down 3%, research firm SNL Kagan forecasts.

Silverman's next act is with Internet power IAC, creating "a next-generation enterprise that bridges the gap between traditional television and the Internet," IAC's Barry Diller said in a statement. They offered few details except to say that IAC is simply offering start-up cash and that the new venture will not become part of IAC.