Legendary network executive Fred Silverman dies

Career spanned ABC, CBS, NBC plus his own production company

Media watchers are mourning the death of Fred Silverman, an executive who re-invented CBS and took ABC to the top, and later formed his own production company.

Born in the Queens borough of New York, Silverman began his career right here in Chicago at WGN-TV in the early 1960s where he was a producer and writer and later shifted to New York’s WPIX (both WGN and WPIX at the time were owned by WGN Continental Broadcasting, the forerunner to Tribune Broadcasting.)

In 1963, Silverman jumped to CBS as president of daytime and children’s TV programming. One of the crown jewels of his tenure was green-lightning a Saturday morning animated series based on the Archie comic books series in 1968 and became a big smash. Later, he was credited for helping create another iconic Saturday morning cartoon show, suggesting Hanna-Barbera name the show and the its central character inspired by the chorus in the Frank Sinatra song Strangers In The Night (do-be-doo-be-doo.) Thus, Scooby-Doo was born and became a monster hit whose popularity still reigns today.

Silverman was promoted to CBS vice-president of programming in 1970 and helped transition a prime-time schedule from rural and family comedies to more urban-set sitcoms to draw more advertising revenue. One program (All in the Family) changed the face of comedy forever tackling issues then taboo on television.

In 1975, Silverman shifted to ABC as network entertainment president and hit more home runs, pioneering the mini-series (Rich Man Poor Man and the revolutionary Roots) and hits such as Happy Days, Laverne & Shirley, Three’s Company, and Charlie’s Angels. Thanks to Silverman, ABC rose to the top of the ratings heap in a historic feat by 1977.

In order to lift their faltering network in the ratings, NBC hired Silverman away from ABC in 1978 as CEO and despite his stellar track record, was unable to turn the network around. During his tenure, NBC lost even more ground in the ratings, lost affiliates to rival ABC, and green-lighted many forgettable programs (Supertrain, Pink Lady and Jeff, Hello Larry, etc.) To top it all off, NBC lost millions on the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow after the U.S. pulled out of the games to protest the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan a year earlier.

And worse for Silverman, he was mocked widely for the way he ran the network. The ad agency behind the “Proud As A Peacock” branding made a parody video and was roasted on Saturday Night Live by comedian Al Franken, referring to him in “Limo-For-A-Lame-o” skit on Weekend Update (believe it or not, there is a whole Wikipedia article on the subject.) Of note is SNL had its own problems at the time, losing ground to upstart rival Fridays on Silverman’s former network ABC.

Despite all the problems, Silverman did find some hits at NBC – notably Diff’rent Strokes, The Facts Of Life, Real People, and Gimme A Break and signed a young comic named David Letterman to host an off-beat daytime show. But by 1981, NBC officials had enough and replaced Silverman with Grant Tinker.

Silverman formed his own production company and convinced MGM/UA to launch a syndicated late night talk show featuring comedian Alan Thicke called Thicke Of The Night with Metromedia and their large-market station group (five of those are now owned by Fox, including Chicago’s WFLD.) Premiering in September 1983, Thicke was not able to overcome bad reviews and was canceled in July 1984 due to low ratings.

In 1985, Silverman teamed up with Dean Hargrove and Viacom to form a production company to produce several successful network television movies and dramas including Matlock, Jake And The Fatman, Diagnosis Murder and Father Dowling Mysteries (another series, In The Heat of The Night, was produced independently by Silverman and MGM/UA.) Their production company also produced a smash hit TV movie featuring Raymond Burr reprising his iconic role as Perry Mason for NBC and led to over a dozen more. As of this writing, his production company was still active.

In an interview with TVNewsCheck in 2014, Silverman gave praise to local broadcasting – especially Chicago-based Weigel Broadcasting’s MeTV and Neal Sabin in particular. In the same interview, Silverman lamented how “safe” television had become. “It’s just political incorrectness,” he told Harry Jessell. “You couldn’t put All In The Family on today. I doubt whether you could put M*A*S*H on the air because there are too many different pressure groups. There are too many different people saying you can’t do this or you can’t do that. It’s just not possible.”

Silverman was inducted into the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences Hall of Fame in 1999. He is survived by wife Catherine Ann Kihn and two children.

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