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NBC chief Ben Silverman sells his Reveille production company

By Christopher Rocchio and Steve Rogers, 02/15/2008 

Ben Silverman apparently figured better late than never.

The NBC Entertainment and NBC Universal Television Studio co-chairman sold his Reveille television production and distribution company for $125 million on Wednesday to Shine Ltd. -- a British production company owned by Rupert Murdoch's daughter Elisabeth, the Los Angeles Times reported Thursday.

"I love Reveille. It was my baby, and a huge amount of energy, commitment and life force went into building it," Silverman told the Times. "But I realized that I just wanted to focus 100% on NBC."

NBC hired Silverman last June as its new programming chief and during the last nine months, the Times reported Reveille has sold at least 14 shows and scripts to NBC for its primetime programming schedule. 

Several ethics experts have questioned Silverman's situation, according to the Times, claiming NBC could have avoided conflict by forcing him to divest or simply by purchasing Reveille in June before he began recommending the production company's shows -- such as Nashville Star -- to the network.

"[Silverman's sale of Reveille is] too little too late," Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania business ethics professor Thomas Donaldson told the Times.  "How do you second-guess a star producer in an artistic venue that is inherently subjective?  Silverman was hired supposedly because he was the master at making such [programming] calls, which makes it all the more perplexing why NBC didn't do the right thing in the first place."

NBC established "safeguards" after hiring Silverman to avoid a conflict of interest, the Times reported, such as having chief executive Jeff Zucker make the final decision when it came to ordering programming.

"We have full confidence in the way NBC Universal has handled this matter," NBC Universal parent General Electric Co. told the Times.

Since NBC Universal's requirement that Silverman "remove" himself from Reveille's day-to-day management and not have an ownership interest in any Reveille projects seemingly failed to end outside criticism of the ethical conflict of interest, he began talks to sell the company to Shine Ltd. late last fall.

"Lis Murdoch is a dear friend," Silverman told the Times.  "She was a handpicked buyer and she is the perfect person to look after the company and grow it to the next level."

Despite Silverman's sale of Reveille, NBC Universal told the Times various conflict-of-interest safeguards will remain in place, including the continual review of all Reveille projects due to Silverman's relationship with Elisabeth and the possibility he could return to the production company he founded after his contract with NBC expires in Summer 2009.

Silverman and Elisabeth have been friends for a decade, according to the Times, and he also served as her agent when working for London's William Morris office prior to launching Reveille.

It was during his time as a William Morris agent that Silverman -- who eventually became the company's youngest division head -- first rose to prominence.  During his six years at the agency, he started the trend of producing American adaptations of foreign programs when he helped sell Who Wants to be a Millionaire? to ABC and Big Brother to CBS.

In early 2002, Silverman left his William Morris position to launch Reveille with the help of USA Entertainment -- which, at the time, had recently become part of Vivendi Universal Entertainment, which later became part of NBC's 2004 Vivendi Universal merger that created NBC Universal. 

Michael Jackson, USA Entertainment's chairman and CEO at the time, had previously worked with Silverman when he was in charge of Channel 4, the British television network that broadcasts the U.K. edition of Big Brother (Big Brother, produced by recently-sold global reality TV giant Endemol, first aired in the Netherlands.)

Silverman and Reveille's first project was The Restaurant, an "advertiser supplied" reality series that was financed by "context relevant" advertisers and co-produced by Mark Burnett, who at the time, had already begun blazing the television industry's product placement trend with Survivor

Although it was Reveille's first project, The Restaurant didn't premiere on NBC until July 2003, resulting in Nashville Star -- another Reveille reality project that aired on USA Network, at the time one of USA Entertainment's own cable networks -- making it to air first (Nashville Star premiered four months earlier in March 2003).

Also in 2003, Silverman began producing The Biggest Loser for NBC, followed by Blow Out -- a hair salon version of The Restaurant -- for Bravo in 2004.  Since then, Reveille has been responsible for creating and producing numerous other unscripted shows, including NBC's $25 Million Dollar Hoax, Identity, and American Gladiators revival; MTV's Date My Mom and Parental Control; Bravo's Shear Genius; and FX Network's 30 Days

Along the way, Silverman also began revisiting his William Morris days and acquired the rights to produce American adaptations of the U.K.'s Coupling and The Office and Latin America's Ugly Betty scripted series.  Reveille ended up selling Coupling and The Office to NBC and Ugly Betty to ABC, and although Coupling ended up bombing in the ratings stateside, The Office (which won the 2006 Outstanding Comedy Series Emmy Award) and Ugly Betty (which won last year's Best Comedy Series Golden Globe Award) have given the company a strong foothold in scripted programming.

When NBC took over Universal in May 2004, Reveille and Silverman began licensing NBC Universal's program format lineup internationally for NBC and closed more than 50 format deals in over 30 countries in only a year.

After being appointed as co-chairman last summer -- along with veteran NBC Universal executive Marc Graboff, who filled NBC's other newly created co-chairman position -- Silverman stated he was "taking a massive financial hit" by taking the position with NBC but added one of the perks of the deal was that he'd still retain ownership of Reveille.

Grant Tinker -- who sold his interest in MTM Enterprises after being hired as NBC's programming chief in 1981 -- declined to specifically comment on the Silverman situation when questioned by the Times, however he did offer some general perspective.

"You can't be buying programs and selling them at the same time," Tinker told the Times.  "I didn't realize as much value as I could have [in the transaction]."

With its recent acquisition of Reveille, the Times reported Shine is now Britain's fourth-largest independent television production company.

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