Tom Snyder, who interviews people and who is alternately rumored to be either the next Johnny Carson or the next Johnny Chancellor, refuses to be interviewed himself these days. "I won't do anything more until Freddie comes," Snyder says.
The producers of "Quark," a new not wildly successful NBC comedy series, complain that they can't get straight answers about the future of the show because the people at NBC just keep saying, 'We have to wait until Freddie comes.'"
Lorne Michaels, producer of NBC's hit "Saturday Night Live," doesn't quite know what to do now that his contract with the network has expired because, he says, "We're all kind of waiting for Freddie."
"Waiting for Freddie" is not a parlor game or an existentialist play. It's the way of life at NBC, where it is assumed that Fred Silverman - programming genius, prophet of profits, last of the last tycoons and aging wunder-kind - will prove to be the deliverer, the man who leads the way out of the bondage of third place among networks.
Silverman, who was boffa at CBS and then a smasheroo at ABC, doesn't arrive until early June, but the palm braches are being pruned already. The talk around the network is reverentially hopeful; the Maharishi Mahesh Freddie is on is way and so, the opposition shal be smited. Or is that, smit?
"No, the network is not 'on hold,'" says one high-placed NBC insider. "Bureaucracies have a life of their own, after all, and the day-to-day decision making goes on. But we are in a kind of limbo taste, I guess. Our Leader doesn't come abroad until June. The feeling is that the low ebb of NBC is behind us. The future looks brighter. The name of the game is programming, and we're getting the guy who can do it better than anybody."
One problem is, however, that Silverman is not going to be merely head of programming, as he was at ABC. He's in charge of the whole empire, which includes owned television stations, NBC News, and the radio network. Skeptics, especially among the competition, wonder rather loudly if Silverman will have the time or the inclination to do the ghing he's the acknowledged master of: program.
NBC will be the last network to announce its new fall schedule - it'll be early May - but network spokesmen say that has nothing to do with the late arrival of Silverman. NBC is just the network with the most overhauling to do; only one of the new shows it introduced last fall made it to the end of the season. But network sources also admit that Silverman's first official act upon arriving for work may be to tear up the schedule that programmers have developed and scatter it to the four winds.
Network officials are reluctant to speculate on what will happen. They aren't particularly in love with the idea of anybody speculating about it.
"I don't know what the hell Freddie is going to do and I'll be damned if Freddie knows," says the NBC Executive Vice President Irwin Segelstein, the dearest old pal Silverman has at NBC; they were on the same winning team at CBS years ago. "Freddie has some time to think now and that's probably what he'll do. The answer to most of the questions about what Freddie will do is, 'Beats the hell out of me,' and don't let anybody tell you differently."
No, Silverman is not out in the wilderness taking meetings with rocks. He is in Honolulu on vacation and will soon visit China. By contract with ABC, he is enjoined from conducting NBC business until June. Of course, there are all kinds of rumors - that, for one, he's secretly pulling the strings that make the network dance. NBC spokesmen deny this entirely, saying the only communication from Freddie has been "a whimsical postcard" to NBC-TV President Robert Mulholland.
There are also facetious tales of messages arriving at NBC hidden inside pineapples, and New York journalist Jimmy Breslin recently reported on an independent producer who began a sales pitch to NBC executives by very casually mentioning, "Hey, I've just come back from Hawaii . . ."
At ABC, meanwhile, they laugh to beat the band when they hear that network President Fred Pierce was so hurt that Silverman deserted him for another network that he hired detectives to shadow Silverman night and day, lest he pull off any nifty deals while in suspended hibernation. "Oh, heavens no!" an ABC spokesman chuckles, then gasps. "Oh! That's so silly!"
"I don't think there are any strictures on anybody at NBC," says Segelstein. "Merely that no business can be discussed (with Silverman). But (NBC News president) Les Crystal walks into the French Pavilion and sees Freddie sitting over in one corner, they could wave at one another, right?Then again, I am not licensed to practice law in New York."
Meanwhile, as anyone might expect, there is industry talk of chinks in even the mighty Silverman's competitive armor.The man is widely known as an obsessive-compulsive when it comes to running things; he gets involved in the last details and then the details after that. At ABC, he literally was yanking musical numbers out of variety programs at the last minute in order to make the shows play better, and he personally supervised precisely which scenes would be pulled out of a program to use in promos (ads) for it on the air.
One ABC producer says Silverman's fanaticism for fine tuning led him to such habits as roaming the darkened corridors late at night and dropping into editing booths to look at people's work in progress, somewhat the way Walt Disney was said to do during his dictatorial heyday in the cartoon trade.
At a brodcasting dinner in New YOrk last week, ABC Vie President Edwin T. Vane was asked what advice he'd give Paul L. Klein, the NBC programming chief who'll be working with Silverman. Vane's answer was, "Enjoy Chinese food." See, Freddie loves Chinese food." See, Freddie rather notorious at ABC, in fact, for locking fellow executives in conference rooms all day for programming talks and sending out for Chinese food, their only sustenance.
Perhaps it seems trifling to traffic in Trivia about Silverman, but his move to NBC is one of the few things that promises to be interesting about the TV year ahead. The great riddle is whether his mania for tinkering and adjusting and exploring every possible option will be his glory or his undoing at NBC, where his responsibilities will be much broader than they were at ABC.
"There's a lot of whistling past the graveyard around here now," says one NBC executive. "People go around saying to themsevles, 'He doesn't have a reputation for firing people' and 'He doesn't mess around with the schedule' and then holding their breaths. They know that whatever kind of schedule they come up with for the fall, Freddie could walk in the door and change the whole thing."
At "Saturday Night Live," the admitted irreverents who put together the weekly satire show are curious to see what Silverman will do with them. "People say things like, 'Will Freddie like green in the corridors?'" producer Michales notes. "We've never met him so we don't know what he'll be like. It could be the Nazis marching into Czechoslovakia or the arrival of the messiah."
A Silverman joke had to be dropped from last week's "Update" segment because there was already a Silverman joke in another part of the show. The dropped joke had Silverman accepting Menachem Begin's job because he could "turn the whole Mideast around," Michaels says, and because "it's the only possible step up after this."
Which brings us back to a cautionary word from Segelstein, who barked from his New York office: "If you don't do jokes in this story, don't write it."