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Post-Silverman, the Reality at NBC Is Hard to Script

0728 TV SilvermanBen Silverman, the noted blues musician and "Entourage" guest star, is out at NBC, where he successfully guided the network to a fourth-place finish in the prime-time ratings. In is Jeff Gaspin, a longtime NBC Universal exec best known for having never called himself as a “rock star” (at least not on-record), who will oversee programming at the Peacock network while maintaining his power over the company’s cable channels. Since joining NBC in 2007, Silverman oversaw the continued decline of scripted television at the network and a further shift toward reality programming–so his exit must be a good thing for actors hoping to land jobs on all those new scripted series NBC is no-doubt planning, right?

Sort of.

The outgoing entertainment co-chair’s legacy and his successor’s work history make divining the future at NBC tricky. Lowbrow reality shows like "The Baby Borrowers" and "I’m a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here" dominated the Silverman era. But that tenure was also defined by several high-profile scripted series that failed spectacularly–among them the sitcom "Kath & Kim," original series "My Own Worst Enemy" and "Kings" and revivals of "The Bionic Woman" and "Knight Rider."

It’s not that Silverman didn’t try to develop new scripted shows for NBC. It’s that only two of the shows he championed – "Parks and Recreation" and "Southland" – will be part of the 2009 fall lineup.

NBC began moving toward reality and unscripted shows long before Silverman showed up. In fact, that shift can be traced to 2001, when CEO Jeff Zucker brought Gaspin back to NBC from Viacom, where he helped re-brand VH1 with "Pop Up Video" and "Behind the Music." In the Los Angeles Times yesterday, Zucker credited Gaspin, who headed NBC’s unscripted programming upon his return, with helping create successful franchises "The Apprentice," "Fear Factor," and "Average Joe." In 2002 Gaspin became president of NBCU’s Bravo channel, where he oversaw the launch of "Project Runway" and "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy," the two shows that paved the way for "The Film and Arts Network" to become "The Padma Lakshmi and Kathy Griffin Network."

But there are hopeful signs hidden in Gaspin’s resume. As chief of NBCU’s entertainment cable division, he oversaw the revitalization of USA as a home for critically and commercially successful scripted shows such as "Monk," "Psych," and "The Starter Wife." As The New York Times pointed out, a new episode of USA’s "Burn Notice" drew 6.8 million viewers last week, more than double the audience NBC’s sitcom re-runs drew the same night.

Ultimately, figuring out whether Gaspin is a reality-TV guy at heart may not be so key to predicting whether he’ll someday replace the Thursday-night comedy block with a two-hour singing contest hosted by David Hasselhoff. Andrew Wallenstein noted at The Hollywood Reporter that Gaspin isn’t expected to take a heavy hand in programming, and will likely leave most creative decisions to Angela Bromsted and Paul Telegedy, who took responsibility for NBC’s fall lineup in December after Silverman was quietly nudged into a sales-oriented role. The roster features new medical dramas "Trauma" and "Mercy," and a new sitcom, "Community," starring Chevy Chase.

But looming large is Jay Leno’s move into the 10 p.m., slot traditionally dominated by hour-long dramas like "Law and Order." More than anything else, the success or failure of that experiment will likely define what a post-Silverman NBC looks like.

--Daniel Holloway

EDITOR'S NOTE: Starting Aug. 3, Daniel Holloway will begin his tenure as Back Stage's national news editor. This is his first post for Espresso.

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