The reviewer writes about television from Venice, Calif.
Television isn't as much fun without Fred Silverman to kick around.
His departure from the presidency of NBC last summer was clearly justified; he was tired and apparently incapable of delivering either the ratings or the quality he had promised. And it was nice to see Grant Tinker, Mr. Taste, replace him.
Still, anyone who follows televisionland's shenanigans is going to miss Silverman. We'll miss the delicious stories about his brainstorms and his bombs. And we'll miss his manic dedication to the medium -- a dedication that sometimes seemed emblematic of everything that is wrong with television but sometimes seemed like nothing more sinister than a fierce desire to entertain millions and millions of people.
Fortunately, we can indulge in one final Silverman-watching orgy by reading Sally Bedell's trenchant account of prime-time network television in the Silverman years, "Up the Tube."
The title of Bedell's book sounds like something dreamed up by one of Silverman's minions during his "jiggle" days at ABC. But the writing itself is devoid of such gimmickry. Indeed, though Bedell is writing about one of the most hype-prone subjects imaginable, she maintains a consistently thoughtful perspective. "Up the Tube" is thorough yet well-focused, replete with enough basic information to brief the outsider and enough new details to keep the insider turning those pages, and strewn with revealing and sometimes hilarious anecdotes and quotations (from Silverman's 1959 master's thesis on ABC: "The phrase 'a young vitalic network' is the key to the future for ABC").
Silverman is not the sole subject. He had very little to do with the rise of the television movie and mini-series during the past decade; he had nothing to do with "Mork and Mindy" and "Dallas" and occasional other hit series. Bedell is careful to apportion responsibility to most of the other executives who contributed to Silverman's handiwork, and she displays remarkable ability to ferret out who contributed what and to recreate what went on behind the closed doors of top-level programming meetings. She also makes a point of discounting somewhat the legend of Silverman's "golden gut," asserting that he relied on research in his decision-making more than he would have us believe.
Nevertheless, it is clear that Silverman was the pivotal figure behind prime-time television of the '70s. He began the decade at CBS, where he oversaw the introduction of "All in the Family," "The Mary Tyler Moore Show," their spinoffs, "M*A*S*H," "The Waltons," "Kojak," "Cannon," "The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour" -- and the likes of "Me and the Chimp." He staved off a ratings threat from NBC and then switched to ABC, where he propelled "Happy Days" to the top of the pack and added "Laverne and Shirley," "Three's Company," "Soap," "Charlie's Angels," "Bionic Woman," "Donny and Marie" and the incongruously classy "Family" -- as well as the irritating onslaught of on-air promotional spots for programs that have now become customary at all of the networks. He took ABC to Nielsen nirvana, and then it was on to NBC, "Diff'rent Strokes," "Real People" -- and a long list of flops, including such ambitious ventures as "United States."
At NBC Silverman was in charge of the entire company, not just the TV programming, and he became an embodiment of the Peter Principle. But Bedell implies that Silverman would have failed even if he had stuck to programming: "At the start of the 1980s, Silverman resembles a once-brilliant inventor who has stayed too long in his basement." She suggests that perhaps he will be pragmatic enough to adjust to "the new video order," but she promises that he "will never again cut the broad cultural swath of the mass-audience programmer." Neither, it is likely, will anyone else.
In a sense, then, Bedell's book is about a dinosaur. But this should not deter any of its potential readers. Silverman, son of a pioneer TV repairman, was the TV program repairman for a whole generation of Americans -- many of whom are just now becoming teen-agers. His influence will be felt for years to come. And his story is also fascinating in a less topical way -- as the chronicle of an obsession. Bedell provides glimpses of Silverman's personal life, but to a large extent it appears to have been as dominated by television as his professional life. While touring a neighbor's new apartment, Silverman's wife and ex-secretary Cathy remarked, "This is a better apartment than ours for viewing." "What do you mean?" asked the neighbor. Cathy replied: "Fred likes to look out at the other apartments to see what people are watching on TV, and this apartment has a better view for that."
Freddie, we hardly knew ye.