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Ben Silverman: Past, present, future

Ben Silverman is a US media executive with a rare understanding of the international TV market. Having been instrumental in bringing numerous shows and formats to the US, he, by way of a stint at NBC, founded Electus. He talks to TBI about the shows he believes have shaped the TV business and the Electus content he hopes will shape tomorrow’s viewing.

 

 

TBI spoke to Electus founder and president Ben Silverman the day before and again the day after the launch of his new show for NBC, Fashion Star. Suitably confident, the night before the premiere of the fashion format he said: “I know that we have built a super-smart, innovative show and it will work. I just hope it will work this time.”

In fact it performed relatively well, winning its slot among the target demo, but that is not the whole story according to Silverman, who while at NBC proclaimed he was managing for margin not ratings. He was quoted as saying that the format, which allows viewers to immediately buy the winning designs from affiliated stores, should be judged on the amount of retail business it drives as much as the number of eyeballs it attracts.

“It’s actually a combination of ratings and retail,” he says the day after the show’s debut. “It won its time period in the period among women and 18-49s. What’s equally cool is that Saks sold out of the clothes as did H&M and Macy’s were happy too. We were the number one trending topic on Twitter and that is important as well, that’s the kind of connection we want. The amount of interaction and number of touch points are greater than absolute ratings.”

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Silverman brought Elle Macpherson to the show and is working with another of its stars, Jessica Simpson, on a new projects.

“I learned a lot as an agent, but what has made a difference has been in creating big stars like Steve Carell and Ed Helms in The Office, Jillian Michaels in The Biggest Loser, and casting America Ferrera in Ugly Betty. It’s a combination of having a relationship with the talent and having delivered for them and that means you can get access quicker and people come on board.”

Electus also has a hybrid comedy project at CBS and one of its original shows, Pedro and Maria is also destined for a broadcast network, although Silverman will not reveal which one. The telenovela-esque project was originally being developed and produced by America Ferrera and her production company Take Fountain, for MTV. Now, Electus has a reworked version, which it hopes to get away this year.

Having been instrumental in bringing shows including Ugly Betty, Who Wants to be a Millionaire and The Office into the US, Silverman has again raided the international market picking up a pair of shows that transmitted on Israeli pay TV platform DBS. It is making a local version of people-trafficking drama Blue Natali for female-skewing cable net Lifetime and Zanzuri for TV Land. Jon Sherman (Frasier) is writing the latter; the story of guy who gets a new lease of life after surviving a heart attack. If Israel is already on the map as an international centre of creativity, where is the next undiscovered content-making territory?

“The internet is the next great country for formats,” Silverman says. “Whether you are looking at some of the talent emerging online, or the creative projects that are getting more and more funding. We have worked with Yahoo and have projects with Judy Grier from The Descendants and Niecy Nash (Reno 911).” The former is an irreverent health-food show Reluctantly Healthy; the Niecy Nash project a relationship show, Let’s Talk about Love. Both were announced as part of Yahoo!’s first slate of original programming late last year.

Ang (left) from Mob Wives will get her own show a new spin-off from the series: Big Ang

Mob Wives, which follows the partners of US mobsters, has been a hit on VH1 and the Viacom channel has ordered a spin-off Mob Wives Chicago. International versions could now be in the offing. “There’s always an element of that sorority in countries around the world and there are opportunities and conversations around formatting that show,” Silverman says.

Electus International has duly shopped it to broadcasters including MTV Latin America, XYZ (Australia) and Shaw (Canada) and Silverman reveals a new instalment in the franchise is in the offing. “We’re about to close a deal for the second Mob Wives spin-off show, based on one of the fantastic lead characters [Angela Raiola from season two of the show]. It’s called Big Ang and she is an incredible character.”

On the scripted side, Electus is working with the Weinstein Co. on Marco Polo, the upcoming martial arts epic about the explorer’s early years in the court of Kublai Khan. It will shoot in China and bow next year on US cable net Starz.

Meanwhile, Silverman says a show recreating the voyage of The Mayflower has been on his radar for a while. “It’s been a passion project of mine and [National Geographic Channels president and ex-Reveille managing director] Howard Owens for years. We always felt that story, about America and its values and people forging a new society, needs to be told again.”

The show will be a four-hour miniseries and Silverman, who will be at MIPTV to talk on stage about Fashion Star with Elle Macpherson, says he will be looking for copro partners.

As well as drama and reality shows, Electus wants a presence in factual. It has a deal with Will Arnett and Jason Bateman’s Dumb Dumb and they have developed Mansome, in which Morgan Spurlock examines male identity through grooming habits.

Silverman says: “I think it’s a golden age for documentary right now; the subjects being tackled and way that the documentary form is being updated is really impressive. I am more excited by the documentary categories at the Oscars than the films.” Next up for Electus on the factual front is a doc with film and TV producer Fisher Stevens about decision-making.

Backed by Barry Diller’s IAC, Silverman is clear he wants to build a next-generation studio, one that works in the content spaces where Hollywood overlaps with Madison Avenue and Silicon Valley. He says: “The vision for the company is to build a longstanding, independent-minded and continually agile content factory for the twenty first century. Whether that may look like the Facebook of content or like Warner Brothers or like Fremantle[Media] is not clear yet.”

The vision for the company is to build a longstanding, independent-minded and continually agile content factory for the 21st century. Whether that may look like the Facebook of content or like Warner Brothers or like Fremantle[Media] is not clear yet.