paidContent - Interview: Ben Silverman Trades NBC for IAC: 'Building A Dream Team'

This story was written by Staci D. Kramer.
Add Ben Silverman to the growing list of entertainment execs who think they can change the programming world by knocking down the barriers between programming, advertising and marketing. Silverman, the outgoing co-chairman of NBC Entertainment and Universal Media Studios, spoke with paidContent soon after he shook up what should have been a quiet July Monday by announcing a move to IAC (NSDQ: IACI) to start a new-look production company for former backer Barry Diller. He told me he let NBC Universal (NYSE: GE) know a couple of months ago that he wanted to stay through the launch of what he sees as his first development slate for the network, including Jay Leno in prime time, then start a company that mixes his experience at as a talent agent at William Morris, an entrepreneurial producer at Reveille and a Big Co. media exec.

Silverman is aiming for a quick start and a leadership role in the crowded space. He promises to put a “dream team” in place but talks about running a lean operation. When he joined NBC two years ago, he was riding a wave of success at Reveille, the production company he founded in 2002.  This time around, he has to prove he can ride the waves again. We spoke about his connection with Barry Diller, the probability he’ll bring in Ryan Seacrest, his plans to set up a new digital distribution network, and whether the new company with no name will go shopping. Edited excerpts follow.

Staci D. Kramer: How did Barry get involved in this?
Ben Silverman: I approached Barry and laid out for him my vision for the company at a breakfast and he really responded to it. And I met with his senior executives to go through it in great detail and we quickly worked out a relationship.  Barry and I have been in business before. He was my original backer and partner in Reveille. We both did very well in that relationship and actually renewed that relationship another time. He kind of recapitalized it. We had a shorthand and we’re familiar with each other.

Can you help me understand how this is going to work financially? Sure, IAC still has almost $2 billion left but this has been described as not a deficit-funding project. How much does it take to start things off?
We’re not funding production but we are funding the overhead and the infrastructure of the company. We’ll also be talking to some other investors, including NBC, who’s going to be a potential partner as well as we continue a relationship with them that I’ve also had for a long time.

We will be scaling this quickly. Barry’s partnership and backing initially is driving the building of the business and then we’ll be bringing in other partners as well. We’re not disclosing it (the funding amount) but it’s very well capitalized. We’ll be building a dream team of creative entrepreneurs and executives from different disciplines. We’re in discussion with a number of advertisers and advertising executives. We are in discussion with a number of creative engines to be labels in the venture, as well as executives to help exploit ideas globally. As you know, I built a massive international distribution company and see that as another area with a dearth of expertise right now that I have expertise in. Also [I plan] a digital distribution business that doesnt yet exist to help kind of consolidate all of hese new media outlets with a one-place shopping, ie a place that knows the relationship and deals with iTunes, Hulu, Amazon,, Netflix.
Are you looking at hiring a couple of dozen people or more?
We will be staffing to meet the opportunity in front of us. But I like doing these things very lean and efficiently. One of the things you see being an entrepreneur inside conglomerates is the ability to do things quicker sometimes means having less people who can do more things. The goal is not to overburden ourselves and become a cruise ship; the goal is to be a fast boat in these chaotic times and to be able to make moves quickly and to provide leadership and results in a transparent way to all of the clients we have whether they be distribution platforms or advertisers or creative people.
Would you see yourself acquiring distribution technology, like Joost, for instance?
I’m not sure yet whether that would be something we need to do; its more the knowledge base around what the deal structures are across all those platforms. There’s not one source you can go to if you’re an independent content creator to help get your content placed. Just as I opened up the international markets to American companies when I launched Reveille, I’ll be opening up the digital markets to a number of independent companies around the world.
Sometimes saying going back to “entrepreneurial roots” is slang for it just didnt work out. You’ve taken a lot of heat. Do you feel like you accomplished what you could have at NBC?
This fall will be where my story at NBC really gets written. (Silverman thinks he became a bit of a “punching bag” for the media when he started his tenure at NBC talking about fixing problems.) ... But the reality is what really was the worst thing ever was to face a series of three labor disputes as you step in to a job makes it almost impossible to achieve anything and I basically had to become a manager, not a show picker or a business builder. This fall, though, I will stand behind the shows, shows like Community and the launch of the new Jay Leno hour at 10 o’clock are exactly the kind of things I wanted to champion, and was able to take the time to push through. Those will be when the results come through. Everything else was just inherited or strike.
If you were doing the Jay Leno show under your new model, what would it be like?
The McDonald’s deal that we made with Jay confirms what I saw as Jay’s ability to be DVR proof, topical, day and date and to deliver. McDonald’s, this great bleeding edge marketer, saw this an opportunity to play out their Monopoly game. What’s the greatest place to pay it off where you can also drive people into McDonald’s? The Jay Leno show. Better than anything else they can do. That’s an example of the kind of validation that we’ll continue to see with Jay’s show. It’s a marathon, not a sprint. I know the first couple of weeks will be great but it’ll also be great in nine months in the summer when he’s up against repeats.

TMZ has already suggested a deal with Ryan Seacrest is in the works. (Seacrest actually broke today’/s news when he twittered about Silverman’s move early Monday.)
I’m very close with Ryan Seacrest. I’ve done a lot of advertising work with him and will continue to since he has a platform that needs to be served Attention is the rarest commodity in the 21st century. The way in which you can get people’s attention is to disrupt and that’s what marketers need. They need a place where entertainment and advertising come together to create culture and when you get Ryan talking on all his platformsÔin his voice, about something, it becomes part of the vocabulary. There are many, many examples. ... If you look across the career, I’ve almost been building to this moment to break the silos down.

Do you have a first look deal with NBC?
We have an ongoing relationship and we’re working out the details of what could be a potential investment or a potential platform partnership. Right now, we havent built. Around, Sept. 14, we’ll be discussing all of the next moves.

Have they gone some way to helping their own silo issue now that Jeff Gaspin has all this under him (as the new chairman of NBC Universal Television Entertainment)?
Exactly. I was very much inside this move and see it as a really strong move for them. I think it consolidates their expertise and enables them to build on that. It recognizes also the place that cable plays inside their company. And that was becoming more and more obvious to me. I’m a big fan of Jeff’s and really thought this was the best move for the company.

There are many companies playing in this space; I hope to take a leadership role in it. People with real vision can stand out and execute ..

Not everything Barry tries works out. Not everything you try works out
Everything he did with me worked out. We were partners twice and it paid off tremendously for him, for me,  or my partners. The company continued to live beyond my departure and everybody involved from NBC to Barry and IAC to Liz Murdoch made a lot of money. That’s probably why were getting back together.
Do you have a timeline for this?
I hope it’s a 100-year idea, In terms of returning investment, at Reveille I built and sold in five years and returned 20 times its original investment. This company, if it follows that path, fantastic. But this company, I think is going to be a much bigger company and is going to take a little longer or be even faster but the goal is to play long term.

By Staci D. Kramer