"There are a lot of things that I can point to that I think are proud achievements…. Most importantly, I had the opportunity to kind of stretch the medium a little bit. To do some things that had never been done before."
About This Interview
Fred Silverman served as the programming head at all three major broadcast networks— ABC, CBS, and NBC. Fred Silverman attests to the quirks of inspiration in developing television programs: "I had always thought that kids in a haunted house would be a big hit, played for laughs, in animation. And [I] developed a show with Hanna-Barbera. And there was a dog in there, but the dog was in the background; it was much more serious…. And [CBS President] Frank Stanton says, we can't put that on the air, that's just too frightening. I booked a red-eye and I couldn't sleep. I'm listening to music and as we're landing, Frank Sinatra comes on, and I hear him say 'Scooby-do-be-do.' It's at that point I said that's it, we'll take the dog— we'll call it Scooby-Doo. "
In his six-hour Archive interview, Silverman talks about his first job in television, at WGN in Chicago, where he repackaged existing programming and created originals, including Zim-Bomba and Bozo's Circus. He tells of his move to CBS in New York, where he quickly worked his way up the corporate ladder, first as head of daytime programming (where he made his mark revitalizing the Saturday morning lineup) and later as the Vice President of Programming. He enumerates and comments on the programs he oversaw during this time including: All in the Family, Kojak, M*A*S*H, The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour and The Waltons. On The Waltons , Silverman recounts its amazing success: "Flip Wilson was hot as a pistol, and we were… putting in The Waltons [against it]. When we had the affiliates meeting we got to this time period, they actually laughed out loud-- this sweet little show, about a bunch of destitute people in Appalachia…. We destroyed Flip Wilson and it was the number one show in the country." He describes the corporate culture at CBS and how he came to leave CBS to join ABC, where he was appointed President of ABC Entertainment, overseeing such programs as Donny and Marie, Eight is Enough, The Love Boat and Three's Company. He also touches on the development and scheduling of the miniseries Rich Man, Poor Man and Roots.
In part two of his interview, Silverman talks about his next move, to NBC, as President and CEO, overseeing the development of Diff'rent Strokes, The Facts of Life and Hill Street Blues. He explains the basic tenets of working as a network executive and discusses his methods for development, scheduling and promotions. Finally, he talks about his work as an independent producer for such programs as the Perry Mason television movies, Matlock, In the Heat of the Night and Diagnosis Murder. Dan Pasternack conducted the two-part interview in Westwood, CA on March 16, 2001 and May 29, 2001.
Fred 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.
Fred 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.
From 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.
Silverman 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 other individual.
Of 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.
FRED 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 90025, U.S.A.
TELEVISION SERIES (executive producer)
1985-94 Perry Mason (movies) 1986-95 Matlock 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.
Reeves, Richard. "The Dangers of Television in the Silverman Era." Esquire (New York), 25 April 1978.