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R.I.P. Fred Silverman, network exec who helped define the look and feel of '70s TV

Illustration for article titled R.I.P. Fred Silverman, network exec who helped define the look and feel of '70s TV
Photo: Taylor Hill (Getty Images)

Fred Silverman has died. The prolific television executive and producer—and namesake of the character of Fred from Scooby-Doo—was one of the most powerful people in American television for more than a decade in the 1970s. Moving between all three “Big Three” networks over the course of his career in American TV, Silverman had a hand in many of the most seismic television moments of the era, from the creation of classic series like The Mary Tyler Moore Show and The Price Is Right, to the establishment of Dave Letterman as a national late-night talk show star, to the disastrous Jean Doumanian season of Saturday Night Live. His influence resonates on TV to this day, whether in the continued appeal of the spin-off—a Silverman specialty—or in the various long-running shows that still bear his touch.


Born in New York, Silverman got his start at CBS, where he pulled down a job as an executive at the young age of 25 on the strength of a masters thesis analyzing a decade’s worth of network programming. Responding to a call for a tighter focus on advertising demographics, Silverman helped to institute the infamous “rural purge” at the network, bulldozing shows like Green Acres and its ilk in favor of more urban-focused series like All In The Family and Barnaby Jones. He kept those same sensibilities in place when he made the move to the president’s chair at ABC in 1975; his continued track record of successful shows earned him the nickname “The Man With The Golden Gut”—even if a lot of that instinct, as with Charlie’s Angels and Battle Of The Network Stars, seemed fixated on ideas like “Men like watching attractive women run around without an excess of clothing on.”

Silverman’s career took a turn for the contentious in the late ’70s, when he made the move over to NBC. Despite a few successes—including the launching of Hill Street Blues, a series still worked into the DNA of many a network cop show—he was just as known for friction with the network’s on-air and off-air talent. (Also: Supertrain.) Besides getting sucked into contract negotiations with Johnny Carson (entering the last phases as his tenure as king of late night), Silverman’s NBC run is probably best known for his very public strife with the cast and writers of Saturday Night Live. As the subject of both Al Franken’s “A Limo For A Lame-o” monologue—and the subsequent tide of letters and postcards sent by the series’ fans—Silverman helped burn the bridges that led to the show’s disastrous reboot in 1980.

Although he stepped back from network leadership in the 1980s, Silverman continued to have a major impact on TV: His production company created some of the most watched syndicated procedurals in television history, including Matlock and Diagnosis: Murder. He was also a steward, during his period as an executive, for a number of major television influences, including and especially his continued collaborators at Hanna-Barbera, who created many of their most iconic characters for his various Saturday morning line-ups. That’s to say nothing of his willingness to take big, expensive swings; it’s unlikely that either Shogun, or Roots, two of the most costly and expansive television projects of their era, would have made it to TV without his push.

Silverman died earlier today. He was 82.

[via The Hollywood Reporter]