American television producer
Television executive Fred Silverman is the only person ever to have held top programming positions at all three major American television networks (ABC, CBS, and NBC). His prominent role in developing prime-time TV content made him a very influential figure in the broadcast industry. Among his many innovations, Silverman is known for introducing the program format known as jiggle TV during the 1970s, when he produced a number of shows that featured beautiful women in skimpy clothing. Although many of these shows enjoyed great popularity, they also generated controversy among critics, who complained that the shows exploited women and promoted immoral behavior. In his later career, Silverman became an independent television producer and served as a programming consultant for ABC.
"I think that the most distinguished series programming has been in the hour form … I just don't think that TV comedy has progressed. If anything, it's taken several steps backward."
Rising to power
Fred Silverman was born on September 13, 1937, in New York City. He attended Syracuse University and then went on to earn his master's degree in television and theater arts from Ohio State University. Silverman knew all along that he was interested in working for a television network. In fact, his master's thesis provided an analysis of ABC's television programming.
After graduating from Ohio State in 1961, Silverman got a job overseeing the children's programming at a Chicago TV station, WGN. He was so successful in that position that he was offered a job at the CBS network in 1962. Silverman took charge of daytime programming for the network, and he quickly improved its Saturday morning cartoon lineup. The ratings for CBS on Saturday mornings soon climbed from third place to first.
After that initial success, Silverman became vice president of programming at the network in 1963. At this time, CBS's prime-time lineup consisted mainly of silly, escapist comedies. Silverman was one of the leading executives who pushed to develop more realistic shows that dealt with current social and political issues. Based on his recommendations, CBS canceled a number of country-themed comedies, such as Green Acres, in a programming move that became known as the rural purge. The network replaced these shows with more realistic sitcoms (situation comedies) that featured a darker brand of humor and addressed many of the important issues of the day. Some of the hit shows that premiered over the next few years were All in the Family, Maude, The Jeffersons, M*A*S*H, and The Mary Tyler Moore Show.
During Silverman's twelve-year tenure at CBS, viewers increasingly tuned in to the programs he had supported, and ratings for the network's prime-time schedule increased steadily. With Silverman's success, however, came attention from other networks. In 1975, he accepted an offer from ABC to become the head of ABC Entertainment. This position gave him control over all programming decisions on the network, which was the lowest-rated among the Big Three networks (ABC, CBS, and NBC) at that time.
Bringing jiggle to TV
As head of programming at ABC, Silverman immediately set to work trying to craft a schedule that would increase the network's ratings. He approved the development of several shows that turned out to be very popular with viewers, including the miniseries (a program that continues over several episodes) Roots. Based on a historical novel by Alex Haley, Roots followed an African American family through four generations, beginning when the first member was brought to America as a slave. When ABC broadcast episodes of Roots on eight consecutive nights in 1977, it became one of the most-watched television events in history.
Silverman also had a hand in developing successful dramatic series such as Starsky and Hutch and Charlie's Angels, as well as hit sitcoms such as Happy Days, Laverne and Shirley, and Three's Company. Although these shows attracted large audiences, some of them were attacked by critics for featuring attractive women in minimal clothing. The critics referred to the trend in programming launched by Charlie's Angels and Three's Company as jiggle TV. Feminists argued that such shows exploited women by treating them as little more than sex objects. Other critics complained that TV's growing emphasis on sex and violence would have a negative effect on morality and family values.
Despite such criticisms, however, jiggle TV proved to be a winner in the ratings for Silverman and ABC. It was clear that Silverman had an instinct for what the public wanted to see on television at a particular time. A 1977 Time magazine cover story called Silverman "the man with the golden gut," in reference to the remarkable success of his bold programming moves. Within a short time of his arrival at ABC, Silverman managed to improve the network's overall ratings from third place to first place.
A rocky tenure at NBC
In 1978, Silverman decided to leave ABC to become president and chief operating officer of rival network NBC. Thanks to his successful tenures at the two other major networks, he faced very high expectations in his new job. "The announcement of Fred Silverman's jump from ABC to NBC not only sent shock waves through [surprised] the broadcast industry but also attracted a great deal of coverage by the general news media," Harry Castleman and Walter J. Podrazik wrote in Watching TV. "Once again, Silverman was leaving a number one television network and taking his tremendous programming expertise to the last place competition. In 1975 that had marked the beginning of a changed television world that soon found ABC at the top of the heap. Comparisons and speculation were inevitable: Could 'Freddie' work his magic once again?"
But the instincts that had launched Silverman to the top of his profession at CBS and ABC abandoned him during his short stay at NBC, and he faced disappointment after disappointment. In fact, most of the shows that were conceived and produced during his reign were failures. The network lost ratings ground in all programming areas—including prime time, daytime, late night, and morning and evening news—and profits fell sharply. The network was also negatively affected by writers' and actors' strikes during this time. (A strike is when workers walk off the job with the hope of gaining better pay and/or working conditions.) When Silver-man lost his programming touch, his unpredictable and demanding behavior became less acceptable. A number of his colleagues spoke out against him in the press, and his reputation suffered severe damage as a result.
In 1981, Silverman resigned as president and chief operating officer of NBC and was replaced by Grant Tinker. His string of failures outweighed his previous successes in the minds of many people in the TV industry, so there was little chance of his getting a job offer from another television network.
In the 2000s, most critics still consider Silverman's time at NBC to be a spectacular failure. But they do give him credit for rescuing a high-quality, innovative program that might otherwise have been canceled. Shortly before he resigned from NBC, Silverman renewed the critically acclaimed police drama Hill Street Blues for a second season, despite the fact that the show had received terrible ratings. Silverman recognized that the series had great potential, and he decided to give it more time to gain an audience. It ended up running for six years, winning numerous awards, and revolutionizing television drama.
Hill Street Blues was an intense, realistic police drama that featured well-developed characters and complex plots. Each episode presented a single day in the lives of the people who worked at an urban police station. But unlike other cop shows that had come before, Hill Street Blues also included elements of a workplace comedy and a soap opera. The series was shot with a shaky, handheld camera, which gave it a distinctive, edgy look. The innovative aspects of Hill Street Blues influenced many later programs and helped NBC attract educated viewers who wanted TV to provide a source of engagement rather than escape.
Embarking on a new venture
After resigning from NBC in 1981, Silverman became an independent television producer. He formed his own production company, the Fred Silverman Company, and began to develop programs for larger entertainment firms, such as Viacom International, MGM/UA Communications, and Columbia Pictures Entertainment. The first few years, however, were very difficult for Silverman. During his career in network television, he had made many enemies among rival executives. Despite the bad feelings, though, Silverman believed that if he created quality programs, the networks would buy them.
Silverman had his first major success as an independent producer in 1985, when he developed a two-hour movie special around the popular TV character Perry Mason, starring Raymond Burr in the title role. The movie attracted a large audience and placed first in the ratings on the night it aired. Silverman went on to use that formula—putting identifiable and well-loved stars in familiar, comfortable situations—to create other successful programs.
The formula produced several successful shows for Silverman in the 1980s and 1990s. In 1986, The cast Andy Griffith, star of the beloved 1960s comedy The Andy Griffith Show, as a Georgia lawyer in Matlock. The series was a hit and ran until 1995. In 1993, Silverman gave another popular older star, Dick Van Dyke, a starring role in the detective series Diagnosis Murder, which ran until 2001. In 1998, Silverman cast Carroll O'Connor, the actor who had played Archie Bunker on the hit 1970s sitcom All in the Family, in the long-running police drama In the Heat of the Night.
All of these series proved very popular among viewers older than age fifty-five. Silverman believed that he could create profitable shows by targeting these viewers, since there were few programs designed to appeal to an older audience at that time. His vision proved successful, and these shows did very well in the ratings and ran for several years.
In 1989, Silverman teamed with a former network television colleague, Fred Pierce, to form PierceSilverman, a production company that created original programming for the broadcast networks, cable systems, and home video market. In the following years, Silverman served as a programming advisor to ABC, helping to plan the network's prime-time schedule. Silverman also bought a stake in the Pax network, which airs programs targeted toward families and older viewers. In 2002, he became an adjunct professor at the University of Southern California's School of Cinema and Television.
For More Information
Castleman, Harry, and Walter J. Podrazik. Watching TV: Four Decades of American Television. New York: McGraw-Hill Books, 1982.
"I'm Not Rumpled Anymore." Forbes, March 6, 1989.
"Silverman: Nets Need Aunt Nellie." MediaWeek, July 27, 1998.
"Where Are They Now." Time, May 27, 1996.
"Fred Silverman." Museum of Broadcast Communications. http://www.museum.tv/archives/etv/S/htmlS/silvermanfr/silvermanfr.htm (accessed on May 22, 2006).