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 at 82 — ran all three.
Ranging from chimps and “Charlie’s Angels” (shown here) 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 chief Brandon Tartikoff wrote in “The Last Great Ride” (1982). “He truly loved television.”
That’s not as common as you might think. TV networks have been run by lots of Ivy Leaguers – at one point, half the big-four networks were run by former Cornell fraternity brothers – and even a couple of Oxford grads. Some seemed perplexed by mass tastes; Silverman shared them.
He 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’ programming chief.
This was 1970, when advertisers were increasingly aware of demographics. CBS’ shows drew audiences that were older, more rural, with moderate incomes; Silverman was told to change that.
Departing were “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 “MASH” and “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 wrote in “Beatng 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, he wrote 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, hirng 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, wrote 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 did transform yet another Saturday-morning line-up via Hanna-Barbera – this time after noticing his daughter play with toy Smurfs. He had a few primetime successes: “Real People” was innovative … “Diff’rent Strokes” was light fun … 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 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 movies the next year.
TV kept changing, adding cable and streaming and more. It had change hugely from the days when their were three networks, all of them deeply impacted by Fred Silverman.