Silverman grew up in Manhattan with his mom, Mary, a television executive with the BBC, and his dad, Stanley, a composer. He set his sights on the industry in junior high after reading a profile of Brandon Tartikoff, NBC’s legendary head programmer in the 1980s, in New York magazine. While majoring in history at Tufts, Silverman spent three summers interning for Warner Bros. and, upon graduation, photocopied his mom’s Rolodex and headed for Los Angeles. He crashed at a friend’s place while looking for work and, because the AC was busted in his car, took to driving to job interviews in his underwear and getting dressed in parking lots.
Barbara Corday, a former CBS executive who was starting her own TV production company, eventually hired him to be her assistant. “He was extremely young and enthusiastic and very charming,” she says. “All the things you read about him now, he was then, only more like a puppy. And who can resist a puppy?”
His very first day on the job she decided Silverman was “too good” to be her assistant. So she gave him the title of manager of development. Later that day, she decided director of development had a better ring.
“No, no, no. I did not quit smoking pot to take this job,” he says. “I’m still single, and I go out with my friends, but it was a non-issue for me.”
“I was 22,” says Silverman, giving one of his signature smiles, with his eyes open wide and his bushy eyebrows arched high, “and I was basically promoted three times over the course of a day.”
When Corday was hired as president of New World Television in 1993, she took her protégé with her, and when she was pushed out a year later to make way for the aforementioned Tartikoff, Silverman stayed on, becoming what he describes as his onetime idol’s “go-to guy.” In 1995 he jumped to the William Morris Agency, setting up shop in the London office and making his first big splash by putting together deals to adapt European shows like Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, Survivor and The Weakest Link for the American market. “I basically established a monopoly,” he says. “If it had an accent, I was involved in selling it.”
Having built a reputation as one of reality TV’s driving forces, he set up his own production company, Reveille, in 2002, which scored hits like The Biggest Loser. He also used his importing skills to translate The Office (originally a UK smash) and Ugly Betty (based on a Colombian soap opera) for Stateside audiences. Altogether, Silverman-produced shows (the latter two and The Tudors) received 24 Emmy nominations this year.
Word of Silverman’s move to NBC first hit Hollywood on the Friday before Memorial Day in a manner that is emblematic of the new media forces that have the networks scrambling. Just before 10 a.m., an e-mail from someone calling himself “theanontipster” arrived on the BlackBerries of reporters, bloggers and industry insiders. It read simply, “Ben Silverman has been offered the job replacing Kevin Reilly.” It was the first that Reilly, who was on the distribution list, had heard of his ouster.