Silverman Out To Remake Local Broadcasting

Programming legend Fred Silverman believes that TV stations' future is in their producing their own entertaiment programming. There are opportunities in daytime, primetime (especially Saturday) and on subchannels, he says. "You would be surprised what the local television station can do when they need to do it."

Fred Silverman isn’t done yet.

Now 76, the legendary TV programmer with the “golden gut,” who during an unparalleled and extraordinary run in the 1970s totally rejuvenated CBS’s schedule, transformed ABC from laggard to leader and, if you believe a certain spin of history, set NBC on a course to primetime dominance, says he can reverse TV broadcasting’s long, slow viewership slide.

How? By helping stations go beyond news and once again produce their own entertainment programming.

“My feeling is that in the next five to 10 years, we’re going to go back to the future,” he told me in an interview earlier this week. “We’re going to see more television produced by local television stations than we have since the early days of television when that’s all they had basically.

“The great strength of a local television station is its roots in the community — and never forget it. That’s the one thing that broadcasting has over cable — daily contact with what the hell is going on.

“Most of the really good television stations are doing a magnificent job of presenting news. Some of them present up to 65 hours a week of local news programming, which is quite extraordinary, and they have spent millions of dollars on personnel and equipment to do this.”


With such in-house talent and production resources, he says, TV stations are capable of producing shows in just about any genre but drama — comedy, narrative reality, talk and game.

“There’s gold in their backyards that can be mined,” he says. “What a lot of local stations don’t realize is that they have weathermen who are more popular in their respective communities than a lot of national personalities.”

Any network affiliate in the top 50 markets should be able mount a comedy show of some kind by tapping into the local clubs, he says. “The really good comedy shows are basically four-wall shows.”

Finding time for locally produced programming schedules won’t be a problem, he says. Within a few years, all the broadcast networks will give up on Saturday night and give it back to affiliates, he says. And Friday nights and the flagging 10 p.m. slot may not be far behind, he adds.

Other opportunities are in daytime and on digital subchannels. With the decline of the soap opera, daytime programming is “lacking” and in need of fresh ideas and fresh programming, he says. Subchannels are great places for stations to experiment and nurture talent and new programs.

Silverman says that he is a fan of Weigel Broadcasting’s Neal Sabin and what he has done with Me-TV, the digital network featuring classic TV. But the old programming cannot sustain the channel forever. Eventually, people will tire of it. Just like cable’s TV Land, which started off with off-net only, Me-TV will have to spike its schedule with original fare.

A hallmark of the local TV entertainment renaissance will be live production, Silverman says. “The relevance of live TV, immediate and topical, is broadcasting’s great strength. If something happens to the community that affects everybody living there, you’re right there. It doesn’t have to go to [an editor]. You just put it right on the air.”

Underlying Silverman’s interest in TV stations is his waning belief in the broadcast networks. The networks are trying to emulate cable, he says, but they cannot because they remain too dependent on advertisers who run from controversial programming.

“It’s just political incorrectness,” he says. “You couldn’t put All In The Family on today. I doubt whether you could put M*A*S*H on the air because there are too many different pressure groups. There are too many different people saying you can’t do this or you can’t do that. It’s just not possible.”

Silverman says he is encouraged that Scripps and other station groups have begun producing some of their own shows. “They’re starting to say: ‘Hey, listen, we can do it ourselves, we don’t need a syndicator to come in with a piece of junk, we probably can do a lot better than that and with local personalities.”

The programming would be created for local viewers, he says, but that doesn’t mean that it might not also have national appeal. If a show eventually proves good enough for syndication, “that’s a home run,” he says, noting that Oprah and Donahue started as local shows.

Silverman’s career didn’t end after his turn as NBC CEO in 1981. He became a TV producer and, like any other producer, had his hits (Matlock, In the Heat of the Night and Diagnosis: Murder) and misses (Thicke of the Night and Twenty One.)

More recently, he has made a couple attempts to build online channels with original TV programming. But they hardly got past the announcements.

Now, he’s returning to his roots (he started his career at WGN Chicago). He says he has plenty of ideas on how station groups can jump-start local entertainment production and is looking for broadcast partners to give them life. He says that he has already had some discussions with leading groups and will be visiting more in the coming weeks.

Not every group can play, he says. “There are certain ones that have major news operations and they have duopolies and it’s going to be easier to do something with them than a group that by and large just has a stick in the ground and is transmitting nothing but syndicated shows.”

I can’t say how far Silverman will get with his ideas. But it’s refreshing to see such enthusiasm and faith in local broadcasting from someone currently on the outside of the business. “You would be surprised what the local television station can do when they need to do it,” he says.

“They’re going to be the last man standing.”

Harry A. Jessell is editor of TVNewsCheck. He can be contacted at 973-701-1067 or [email protected]. You can read earlier columns here.

Comments (8)

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David Siegler says:

February 21, 2014 at 3:44 pm

The value of a local television station is what it can do locally. I believe that Fred is right on the money.

Sean Smith says:

February 21, 2014 at 4:45 pm

He’s talking about bringing back the shows like PM Magazine, and I agree… he is right on the money. I used to co-host PM Magazine at one station, and it was a fantastic boost for our station’s ratings and image. Not to mention, that I would do it again in a heartbeat.

Cheryl Daly says:

February 21, 2014 at 6:27 pm

For many years, stations have been airing two-hour blocks of infomercials on weekend afternoons where once they would have put on a movie from a package that they licensed. Rather than be listed as “Paid Programming”, the titles of these infomercials are now often listed in the program schedule as if they were genuine shows (“Younger Skin In 2 Weeks”). When there is no network sports feed on a Saturday or Sunday, some stations fill all that time with contemporary but bland “programming” from Entertainment Studios. Some stations’ idea of expanding locally-produced programming is to add yet another half-hour of news that consists of continuous recitations of the weather forecast and pictures of sunsets and kittens sent in by cell phone users. Some stations apparently license about three off-network series and run them into the ground in every available local timeslot. Local daytime is one court show followed by three other court shows. I see these practices continuing, I don’t see a resurgence of the talented locally-made shows of the 50s through 70s. I had given up on broadcast TV until the multicast networks started appearing on the secondary channels. What a pleasure it is to watch a Hollywood movie with production values on a network like Antenna TV that refrains from marring the movie with a logo bug. The multicast networks are one of broadcast TV’s best uses of local airtime, offering up quality entertainment that is superior to “Five Steps To A Flatter Stomach” on the station’s main channel.

kendra campbell says:

February 22, 2014 at 8:47 am

Fantasy Land. Staff quality at local stations is significantly lower than 30 years ago. They are fat and happy just “making the donuts”.

alicia farmer says:

February 22, 2014 at 1:37 pm

Harry – I’m sure Fred Silverman is sincere, but his vision won’t happen. 90% of corporate and GMs are quite happy with their folks grinding out 50+ hours a week – regurgitating mind-numbing crime, assorted mayhem, car wrecks, and endless weather hype. The per-program cost is cheap, and that’s what matters most.

Doug Halonen says:

February 23, 2014 at 2:12 pm

The economics of the biz are changing. The question will be when does the cost of putting “classic” shows on digital sub-channels become higher than the cost of new material. The alternative is that stations sell blocks of time on their digital sub-channels or sell the frequencies entirely. Three cheers to Fred for coming up with a creative solution that has a snowball’s chance of working.

dave rawson says:

February 24, 2014 at 2:29 am

Funny they should mention “Thicke Of The Night”. This was the show certain NBC affiliates bought to bump Johnny Carson for, and what did it get them? A one-season blunder, while Carson ran 30 years on “Tonight”. Okay Mr. Silverman, prod local stations to make their own shows as they used to, but do me a BIG favor and keep them out of the Network time slots. I don’t want TV to go back to the way it was in the ’60s and ’70s, with my favorite network shows being pushed into weekend tape-delays being joined in progress after network football and such, or worse, not being seen at all in my area while other cities get to see them. And if daytime has more opportunities for local shows these days, it’s because the networks all but gave up on 9 AM and 3 PM because they let the affiliates walk all over them with their endless pre-emptions of great game shows like CBS’ 1975 “Spin-Off” which deserves to be rerun on GSN and then revived in a new version.

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