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The Television Impact of Fred Silverman
February 2, 2020  | By Mike Hughes  | 1 comment

Fred Silverman molded a generation of television.

It was the last, three-network generation, the final one totally dominated by CBS, ABC, and NBC. And Silverman – who died of cancer Thursday, January 30, at 82 – ran all three.

Ranging from chimps and Charlie's Angels to Archie Bunker and Hill Street Blues, he was the master of big-tent TV. "Fred was one of the few people I've ever known who laughed where the laugh track laughed and got misty watching a daytime soap opera," former NBC programming chief Brandon Tartikoff wrote in The Last Great Ride (1982). "He truly loved television."

That's not as common as you might think. Lots of Ivy Leaguers have run TV networks – half the big-four networks were run by former Cornell fraternity brothers, at one point – and even a couple of Oxford grads. Some seemed perplexed by mass tastes; Silverman shared them.

Silverman grew up in Queens, studied TV at Syracuse, and (in grad school) at Ohio State and reached CBS at 25. In CBS: Reflections in a Bloodshot Eye (1975), Robert Metz wrote that the "plump, genial Silverman…has exceptional taste, enthusiasm, and an open mind."

He tackled Saturday mornings, telling the Hanna-Barbera people that the dog should be the lead in their cartoon, and should be named Scooby-Doo. At 32, Silverman became CBS's programming chief. This was 1970 when advertisers were increasingly aware of demographics. CBS's shows drew audiences that were older, more rural, with moderate incomes; Silverman was told to change that. 
He was responsible for the departure of The Beverly Hillbillies, Green Acres, Mayberry RFD, Hee Haw, Family Affair, Lassie, and The Jim Nabors Show. Some of the replacements sputtered, but Silverman also spotted All in the Family, after ABC had rejected it.

He inserted it in January of 1971, then moved it to his Saturday stronghold. "There would be no All in the Family or Maude without Fred Silverman," Norman Lear tweeted after Silverman's death.

Silverman added both of those Lear productions plus Lear's Good Times and The Jeffersons. He also added comedies (Bob Newhart, Rhoda) from the MTM company.

There were low-ball failures – Me and the Chimp, he told the New York Times, "represented a new depth in television programming" – but he also added M*A*S*H, The Waltons, and more. At times, CBS lived up to its old nickname of "the Tiffany network."

But in mid-1975, he jumped to ABC, which was last in the ratings and had no Tiffany reputation.  
"Everybody was surprised that I didn't move in here and sweep the place out," he was quoted in Beating the Odds (1991), the memoir by ABC co-founder Leonard Goldenson. "But I looked around and said, 'Hey, this is a good group of people.'"

He particularly liked Michael Eisner, who would go on to run Paramount and then Disney. Eisner had already developed Happy Days and now had Laverne and Shirley ready to go. Silverman added that at mid-season, and soon dusted off a long-simmering project.

"Charlie's Angels got enormous ratings in the fall of 1976," Goldenson wrote. Others included "The New Original Wonder Woman, a jiggly vehicle for 1973 Miss USA Lynda Carter. Suddenly, ABC was the prime-time ratings leader. To many in the industry, Fred Silverman was a genius."

He transformed daytime by expanding the soaps to an hour, hiring a new chief (Jackie Smith), and going with her slogan, "Love in the Afternoon." He changed Saturday mornings via Hanna-Barbera.  
But Eisner had left. "With him gone, my job was three times as difficult," Silverman wrote.

Still, there was Roots and more. "The mid-1970s was like a rocket ship at ABC," Fred Pierce, the network president who had hired Silverman, recalled in Goldenson's book. "Our billings went from $700 million to over $3 billion; the profits went from $100 million to $400 million."

Many people had a part in that, Goldenson wrote, "but by late 1977, Silverman apparently began to believe he could do anything." 

That's true, Silverman wrote. "I had great confidence. I felt I could walk on water. Kind of a Christ complex…. That's one of the reasons I took the NBC job" in 1978.

It was a big move for NBC, Tartikoff wrote. This was "the man who brought CBS and ABC from last to first, the man who had been hailed on the cover of Time as 'the Man with the Golden Gut.'"

But NBC had no quick solutions, Tartikoff wrote. "A sense of panic set in, and Fred began to scream, pound his desk and threaten to fire senior executives on a regular basis."

He transformed yet another Saturday-morning line-up via Hanna-Barbera – this time after noticing his daughter play with toy Smurfs. He had a few prime-time successes: Real People was innovative, Diff'rent Strokes was light fun, and MTM's Hill Street Blues drew raves.

But in 1981, NBC fired Silverman and replaced him with Grant Tinker, the MTM founder.

"I am a great admirer of Fred Silverman," Tinker wrote in his memoir (Tinker in Television, 1994), before criticizing his management style. "He wanted a zillion lieutenants, and foot soldiers, (but) was a complete hands-on executive…. He was a one-man-band who always had a whole lot of other musicians sitting around holding their instruments."

Tinker kept Tartikoff in charge and told him to line up the best producers then basically leave them alone. NBC reached the top in ratings, awards, and prestige.

Silverman was still only 44 and had run through the three networks. He sputtered a little then began creating murder mysteries with familiar stars. Perry Mason movies were followed by many series: Matlock, Father Dowling, Jake and the Fatman, Diagnosis Murder, and In the Heat of the Night. 
Tinker praised "his truly remarkable comeback." Goldenson agreed: "After drinking from the bitter cup of failure, he learned humility (and became) one of the world's most successful…producers."

But mysteries have so-so demographics, especially when they have older stars. Silverman's final series, Diagnosis Murder, ended in 2001 with a couple of movies the next year.

TV kept changing, adding cable, streaming, and more. It had changed tremendously from the days when there were three networks, all of them deeply impacted by Fred Silverman.

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SC Vandy
David Janssen, whose "The Fugitive" (1963 - 67) helped put ABC back in the game after the demise of all those Warner Bros.-for-ABC shows ("Lawman," "77 Sunset Strip," "Maverick," et al.) busted his butt the following decade starring as p.i. "Harry O" -- again for Warners and ABC -- heralded for great concept/writing, consistent guest star talent and location shooting. And what a great main & end title!
His wonderful pairing/sparring with Anthony Zerbe, Harry's contact at police hq, shoe-horned Zerbe to an Emmy win its 2nd season, '75-76. Ten scripts were ready for the 3rd season.
As we all know, Fred pulled the plug. Why?! Janssen was so distraught he told all he'd never do another series. And he never did, for the last four years of his short life.
Spring '77 Karl Malden's got an advance order for six "Streets of San Francisco" scripts, for year 6. Robert Stack's new cop show "Most Wanted" climbed to the Top 10. Inexplicably, Fred killed both. "I wish he'd stayed at CBS."
Feb 28, 2020   |  Reply
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