Legacy: Remembering Fred Silverman

Jim McKairnes

Jim McKairnes.

By former CBS executive Jim McKairnes, author of All in the Decade: 70 Things About 70s TV that Turned Ten Years into a Revolution and the creator/producer/host of the podcast The Good, the Bad & the TV 

That Fred Silverman died this past January meant that the famed media executive did not live to witness a year like few in his lifetime. Impeachment and acquittal, George Floyd and civil unrest, Covid-19, lockdowns and quarantines. The kind of year in which media is both caught up and taken down. In which TV in particular comes to plays so many roles — cause, effect, problem, solution, provocateur, observer, distracter. Not unlike the turbulent 1970s, during which Silverman, who was 82, exerted so much media power.

Fred Silverman on the cover of Time magazine, 1977

As the person who ran each of the then-three broadcast networks at one point over the course of those ten years, Fred Silverman was in charge when what was going on in the streets was both changing and being changed by what was happening on the screen. An era when civil liberties were being fought for, when identities were being explored, when grievances were being aired. A social movement that had begun in the 1960s was exploding in the 1970s, and it informed what people watched and how they thought.

Ten years ago, after working at CBS since 1993, I was invited to teach about TV & Media on the college level, first in Chicago at DePaul University and then at alma mater Temple University in my native Philadelphia. Right before I left Los Angeles and knowing that one of the classes that I’d be teaching would focus on the 1970s, I asked Fred Silverman to lunch. To get his thoughts, maybe get some direction. I recorded our conversation, with his permission and for my academic purposes only, after which I transcribed our chat, extracted the most helpful information, and then packed away both the full transcript and the tiny digital recorder — neither to be seen again thanks to multiple cross-country shuffles.

After Silverman died on January 30 (on what happened to be the 43rd anniversary of the concluding episode of Roots, the seminal and record-smashing mini-series that aired under his ABC reign) I went looking for both. It took a while, but at last I found the recorder (no sign of the transcript) in an un-labeled box of CBS-related memories. (Anybody want to view all six episodes of Dolly Parton’s produced-but-never-aired 1994 sitcom?) Last week, I listened to the Silverman conversation again for just the second time. My amateur fawning throughout unnerved me, but Silverman’s answers and insights proved interesting all over again. Even, maybe especially, this year. About the different genres of tv, about his history, about his legacy, about both TV’s and his own future. There are no revelations exposed nor secrets shared. No gossip. But none of the following has ever been made public.

On the subject of reality programming

“All the reality shows [today], all the Real Housewives shows, can trace their lineage back to the Louds,” said Silverman, referring to the groundbreaking longform documentary called An American Family that PBS aired in the spring of 1973, about the day-to-day lives that made up the Pat and Bill Loud family. “That was the first show with that kind of dramatic continuing narrative technique.” Envisioned as an exploration of the ordinary-ness of a typical American family in the 1970s, with cameras positioned all over their Santa Barbara house for months, the project became anything but ordinary when mid-way into its 1971 filming Pat Loud told her husband she wanted a divorce. The cameras kept rolling, and this American Family became a look at the Changing American Family. “It was the first show of its kind,” said Silverman. “All of [today] comes from that show.”

“And then you have Real People, which bust [the genre] wide open.” A lighthearted hour-long series that focused on everyday but unusual Americans (the more unusual the better), Real People premiered on NBC in April of 1979. It closed out the decade, providing a bookend for the Loud experiment. It was produced by Laugh-In’s George Schlatter, though Silverman said he’d taken the idea first to Norman Lear.  (“He didn’t understand it.”) “It was just a variety show but with real people as the stars. It had the live studio audience component and the hosts component with their byplay.” It wasn’t the first of its kind, he knew — non-scripted programming about ordinary people has been around since the birth of TV — “but it was the first that made such an impact in that it was immediately copied and led to more.” One of beleaguered NBC’s few hits while Silverman was in charge, Real People became a Top Ten hit, running five seasons.” It led to ABC”s copycat hit That’s Incredible! and others. “But the network that really picked up on it [years later] was MTV with The Real World.”

On the subject of comedy

The 1970s were “the premiere decade for comedy,” said Silverman, highlighting the names most associated with the genre at the time — Norman Lear, Grant Tinker, Garry Marshall, James Komack, and Susan Harris. (“I’d put Larry Gelbart in there, too.”) He said that among them there ended up being four different styles: the Norman Lear kind, like All in the Family and Maude, that were associated with social-commentary; the Garry Marshall Happy Days kind, with broad family humor; the Mary Tyler Moore and Bob Newhart Show type of sophisticated big-city ensemble comedy; and farce, of which he said there were few in the decade but none that did it better than Three’s Company and in the hands of the “underrated” John Ritter. “Unfortunately the All in the Family kind is gone, because of political correctness,” said Silverman. “I don’t think we can do shows like that anymore. I think you’d be hard pressed. Maybe [on] cable.”

Silverman had admiration for Susan Harris, especially, the comedy writer who as a staffer wrote the controversial abortion episode of Maude on CBS in 1972 and then went on to write and produce (with partners Paul Junger Witt and Tony Thomas) her own shows, like the “monumental comedies” Soap (ABC, 1977) and The Golden Girls (NBC, 1985). Soap was a racy and controversial series for its time, an envelope-pushing parody of daytime dramas, replete with heightened variations on all the tropes that dealt with sex and marital chicanery. As a result, it was the subject of protest for months leading up to its September 1977 debut. “I spent a whole fucking summer defending that thing,” remembered Silverman with a half-smile, the result of a “blistering indictment” handed down by someone who hadn’t even seen it. “It led to some ABC stations moving it to air post-eleven p.m.,” said Silverman. “But it was an innocent show.”

As for contemporary sitcoms, Silverman said that there are attempts to do what he called the Garry Marshall kind but “very few are funny.” Too many go for the important message first at the expense of content. “Messages are fine but it has to be great characters and really strong comedy.” He also lamented the then-growing pull at the start of this decade towards toward single-camera comedy, eschewing the multi-cam live-studio audience comedy experience. As he saw it, some sitcoms such as M*A*S*H and Modern Family do lend themselves to the form, but many don’t need it. Single-camera comedy, said Silverman, encourages “lazy writing.” He said he’d had recent dealings with agents who pitched their writer-clients with the caution that “my client prefers a single-camera style.” His reaction was a bit of an eye-roll. “I prefer comedy that’s funny.” Today’s audience, he said, “has grown up with a different set of values when it comes to comedy. They don’t know what funny is, unfortunately.”

On the subject of made-for-tv movies

A genre that came out of NBC’s schedule-filling “two hour world premiere movies” in the 1960s, the TV-movie became an important tool for all three networks — and a creative outlet for filmmakers — as the 1970s began. Two in particular he cited as early examples of exceptional work were the controversial interracial relationship drama My Sweet Charlie (1970) and The Execution of Private Slovik (1974), about the World War Two soldier who became the first American soldier since the Civil War to be executed for desertion. Hailed by critics, each was nominated for eight Emmy Awards. Silverman reserved most of his praise in this area for Brandon Stoddard, the ABC executive in charge of movies when Silverman arrived at the network.  “Brandon Stoddard was the impresario,” he said. “When I got to ABC the one reason I could do Good Morning America and revitalize daytime is that I had Brandon Stoddard there running this terrific movie operation. … They weren’t all Peabody winners, but there were major titles with sizeable audiences.”

One that was both an award-winner and a ratings-getting was Rich Man, Poor Man. At a time when the TV-movie was growing in importance and expanding in scope and length, ABC turned Irwin’s Shaw’s family saga into a 12-hour event (a year before Roots did the same on an even bigger scale). “Rich Man, Poor Man was sitting there when I got to ABC. The only thing I did was to figure out how to schedule it. A very very good show, very commercial….That was scheduled as a weekly [series].” The mini-series ended up with a staggering 23 Emmy nominations. “I watched the whole damned thing about six months ago. And it holds up pretty well.”

Stoddard also excelled at high-concept B-movies, Silverman said, pointing out the TV-star-loaded Smash-Up on Interstate 5 (1976) and Little Ladies of the Night (1977), about underage prostitutes (“50 share… I mean these are major numbers”) as successful examples. “The range of movies he did was really quite amazing.” Stoddard, who would die in 2014 at age 77, was not nearly as celebrated as he should have been, Silverman said.

On the subject of what he considers his professional highs

  1. Saturday night on CBS (1973-74)

CBS’s landmark Saturday-night schedule as of September 1973 packaged five of TV’s most acclaimed comedies back-to-back: All in the Family, M*A*S*H, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, The Bob Newhart Show, and The Carol Burnett Show. Then and since, it’s regarded as TV’s best-ever night of television. “You can’t do a better schedule than that,” Silverman said. “It’s a helluva night. Look at the talent — in back of the camera as well as the stars.”

It took time to get there, he said. “You didn’t just wave a wand.” It evolved over the course of three seasons, starting with the arrival of The Mary Tyler Moore Show in September of 1970, which was followed by the debuts (on various nights) of All in the Family a few months later (“which we didn’t even develop; it was a gift”) and then M*A*S*H and The Bob Newhart Show in the fall of 1972. (Carol Burnett’s variety show was already a success but had been bouncing around the CBS schedule since its 1967 debut.) Assembled for and lasting just the 1973-74 season, the three-hour block was a programmer’s dream. Each of the four sitcoms placed in Nielsen’s Top 12. (“Movie theaters didn’t do any business on Saturday nights.” ) It was also a comedy landslide: 13 of the major-category comedy-series Emmy wins in 1974 went to shows that aired on CBS’s Saturday night. In fact, every supporting actor and supporting actress nomination, every comedy writing and directing nomination, and two of the three Best Actress nominations were pulled from this line-up.  

  1. Roots (ABC, January 23-30 1977)

“I wanted to buy it when I was at CBS, but they really weren’t in that [long-form] business.” It ended up going to ABC, and so too, in 1975, did Silverman (coming from Number One CBS). The 12-hour juggernaut became as much a cross-cultural front-page-headline-experience as a prime-time one. He called it “a once in a lifetime experience.” Airing over eight consecutive nights in the last week of a snow-battered January 1977, it was hit few saw coming, its seismic ratings assured by “by a convergence of lousy weather across most of the eastern seaboard and my cowardice of not wanting to put it into [February] Sweeps.” As Silverman saw it, his default schedule at top-rated ABC at the time — Happy Days, Laverne & Shirley, Monday Night Football, The Six Million Dollar Man, Charlie’s Angels. The Bionic Woman, Donny & Marie, Welcome Back Kotter, Starsky & Hutch, Barney Miller — was “a very strong schedule with routine 40 shares.” He was loathe to tinker with it. “To take that schedule out and put in a movie about slavery? I was scared to death.”

In large part, the audience shares were equaled and bettered. “We didn’t have overnights like we have now. We had New York and Chicago and LA. [After the premiere] I said to the guy who read me the numbers: ‘So?’ And he says, ‘Alright’ — he was very straight-faced [in his delivery] — he says, ‘New York – 72.’ I said to him,  ‘Hey, don’t be a schmuck.’ Then he read Chicago. The same. The numbers were unheard of, you know? … And it translated in the nationals when they came out. It was enormous.” Silverman’s eyes lit up at the memory, as though he were still incredulous 30 years after the fact. Even the network’s lesser and soon-to-be-cancelled series were swept up in the Roots fervor that week, he said. “The Captain and Tennille Show did a forty share!”

“So I have to say Roots was a thrill.”

On the subject of his final network-TV days

Silverman’s third stint as a network head came at NBC, which lured him from ABC in 1978. It was a fallow period for the network and Silverman didn’t find the success here that he found at ABC and CBS. “It was a fucking mess,” he said. He was in fact in the crosshairs during this period, his once-praised programming genius now maligned. He lasted until 1981. But he recalled that at his final Affiliates Meetings that year — Affiliates Meetings were the equivalent of the annual modern-day dog-and-pony-show Upfronts, he said — the mood was actually upbeat for a change. There was cautious optimism, traced to a handful of current shows that were showing signs of working and a  contender or two on the horizon, among them Hill Street Blues and the TV version of the 1980 film Fame. (“I thought Fame was a new form, combining drama and music; I’m proud of that show; the pilot screened well”.) Banners were flying, music was playing, the years-earlier retired NBC peacock was re-introduced to celebrate the network’s legacy. “People were for the first time thinking, ‘Y’know, we can win this.’ There was really a sense that we were almost there.”

Johnny Carson and Frank Sinatra were the headliners for the meetings. “You want to talk about the history of entertainment? At no point in history, even in Las Vegas, could your get the two of them in the same room on the same night.” (Silverman and Sinatra had the same lawyer at the time, so “I got to be friends with him.” He added that such Hollywood connections, however, could be fleeting. “Once I left NBC? [It was] who was the Jewish kid?”)

Still, NBC was mired in third place in what was a three-way race, which mattered upstairs. And Silverman said that more and more he had begun to feel the presence of corporate overlords (one of whom, a business head on the RCA board, he said with disgust fell asleep during a new-show presentation). In such an environment, he said the end seemed near. “I knew; it’s like oil and water.”

On the subject of the future

At the dawn of the 2010s, Silverman foresaw seismic changes coming that were bound to rupture the TV landscape. He predicted that both Apple and Microsoft would get into the television business “in the next few years,” at which point “it’s a  whole new ballgame.” When that happens, he said, “you don’t need schedules [and] you don’t need cable networks.” Thinking for a second, he went further: “I’ll be damned if I can see the point of a broadcast network.”

When asked if he ever intended to write it all down for a memoir, he waffled, saying he was waiting for to find both the right co-author (“someone with my voice”) and the right approach for the recounting of so many years involved in so many parts of television.

It may or not have been written, but no Fred Silverman memoir was ever published.

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