Fred Silverman: Profiles In Courage

Farewell to the man who made TV what it is

Courage comes cheap in Hollywood these days, but once upon a time in television there was a programming director who was a gangster worthy of the term, a man who showed the kind of raw courage that brought Nazi Germany to its knees at the scheduling board of not one, not two, but three TV networks. That man was Fred Silverman, and the TV world we know today was built on the changes that he wrought.

The big difference is that when Fred Silverman made his dizzying rise through the ranks of network television, the fussy old establishment meant something, and still played for keeps.

In 1970, as Fred Silverman took over CBS programming at the age of 33, the three networks broadcast basically three kinds of shows: situation comedies in which relatable people got themselves out of ridiculous situations in half an hour; police dramas and Westerns, which concluded after 30 or 60 minutes with a bad man meeting the arm of justice, and talk and variety shows, in which pleasant people chatted, told jokes and sang pleasantly.

There was news. The odd anthology like Love American Style. Laugh-In somehow slipped through. But really, that was it. The goal of television shows wasn’t to find a niche and hold onto to a couple million people for a few seasons: it was to reach everyone and keep them forever. And the big shows did that.

Then this 33-year-old shows up and takes on look at the schedule and says, why are we wasting our time splashing around in the pigsty with a bunch of halfwit hicks? He executed what went down in TV history as “the rural purge;” canceling CBS’s hardcore line-up of homespun Americana. Hee Haw, The Beverly Hillbillies, Green Acres, and the sainted Mayberry RFD.  In his place, he said, what if we do a comedy making fun of a Queens know-nothing who complains about the coloreds? (The joke was on Silverman when the know-nothing became a beloved TV icon.) He followed that up with a sitcom about army doctors yukking it up in the OR during the Korean War, TV’s first single career woman leading a comedy, and a bald lollypop-sucking tough guy detective, to name just a few.

And if that didn’t freak out the folks at home enough, he brought game shows back to network television, finding The Price is Right on the ashheap and resurrecting it.

He said, a little good thing is never enough. The minute a character on a show got a couple laughs, he plucked them right out of the show, moved them to another city, gave them new friends and started a spin-off. All in the Family gave birth to The Jeffersons and Maude, which gave birth to Good Times.Within a few years, network primetime television was so different from the staid line-up of the late 60’s it might as well have been in another century.

The party was just starting. Everywhere, like the true gangster he was, Silverman was kicking over the traces and taking television to new dimensions – groovy, zany, dimensions. Sometimes very smart, sometimes very stupid. But collectively, you don’t know disruption until you’ve seen a world that can go from Bonanza to Charlie’s Angels in just a few years.

Silverman put into production a cartoon about ghost-hunting hippies and their talking dog; he introduced “sexy” to the airwaves with the Angels and Three’s Company, Critics derided them as “Jiggle TV,”  but audiences loved them. He greenly Shows about soldiers with robot eyes and arms battling Bigfoot, about families with eight kids under one roof, Sonny and Cher; Donny and Marie; a show about a cruise ship where every week a new cast of stars comes aboard to fall in love; another show were stars went to live out their deepest fantasies presided over be a sinister Latin host and his dwarf sidekick; seemingly hundreds of outcroppings of Happy Days, including one about a mile-a-minute chattering space alien settling in Boulder, Colorado.

He created what’s considered the first network reality show. About real people. And he called it Real People.

And if that weren’t enough, he supersized it. Because of him, we got a mega-series, although they called it a miniseries, called Roots, about one slave family’s history, that took over the entire network line-up (when that meant something) for three weeks.

Ultimately, the Silverman party couldn’t last.  By the time he got to NBC network #3 (out of a possible three), the party had been going all night, the champagne was getting flat, the DJ was playing the same song for the fourth time, and shafts of sunlight were breaking and reminding the revelers that tomorrow was in fact, a work day.

The second and third generation Diff’rent Strokes spin-offs didn’t have the same punch that All in the Family’s did a few years before. By the time they got to Supertrain and Pink Lady and Jeff, people were starting to wonder if there’d maybe been something funny in the punch all along.

The 70’s were too good to last, but while they did they changed everything. The world of bland conformity and shared culture that Fred Silverman found had fallen under his no prisoners ways.  Everything we celebrate today as the current riches of peak tv, was born in those few short years when Silverman wrenched us loose and forward, with heavy doses of hard drama all around, preferably in a purple ruffled tux and spandex bodysuit.

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Richard Rushfield

Richard Rushfield is the editor of The Ankler, a subscription newsletter about the entertainment industry.

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