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Fred Silverman, TV Executive Who Led Programming at ABC, CBS and NBC, Dies at 82

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Fred Silverman, the executive who became the only person in TV history to have headed programming for each of the Big Three broadcast networks, died on Thursday at his home in the Pacific Palisades, Calif. He was 82.

Silverman died with his family by his side.

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During his prolific career, Silverman was credited with helping to launch some of the most successful shows and miniseries of all time, including “All in the Family,” “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” “Happy Days,” “The Waltons” and “Roots.”

After turning both CBS and ABC around in the ratings, Silverman failed to work his magic at NBC in the late 1970s and early ’80s. Once he left the Peacock net to branch out on his own with the Fred Silverman Co., Silverman forged another career as a producer, turning out a number of successful series, including “Matlock,” “In the Heat of the Night,” “Jake and the Fatman” and “Diagnosis Murder.”

“Fred Silverman was a titan of the media industry and an influence on so many,” said CBS Entertainment president Kelly Kahl, who was close to the executive who once sat in his seat at the Eye. “His impact on television was incalculable. All of us at CBS salute his tremendous talent and cultural influence at our network, and throughout broadcast television.”

A controversial figure, Silverman was revered by some for his natural ability to predict what the country wanted to see and reviled by others for programs that were seen as appealing to the lowest common denominator.

After rising for seven years at CBS, Silverman was promoted to VP of programming in 1970. He helped the network transition away from its rural-oriented series to more sophisticated comedies and dramas, which would attract more upscale and more urban audiences that would have greater appeal to advertisers; the axing of shows such as “Petticoat Junction” and “Green Acres” was dubbed the “rural purge.” During his tenure at CBS, he was behind the launch of some of the most successful and respected shows of all time, including “Maude,” “The Bob Newhart Show,” “Mannix” and “Hawaii Five-0.”

Silverman also revamped CBS’ Saturday-morning cartoon lineup and, as a result, helped the network catapult itself from third place to first in that daypart.

But Silverman never felt comfortable at CBS and believed that CBS chairman William Paley didn’t appreciate his programming talent. “The top management was never satisfied. If I went to Paley and said, ‘We have nine of the top 10 shows in the daytime,’ he would say, ‘God, that 10th show. Isn’t there anything you can do about that 10th show?’ Good was not good enough. Great was not good enough,” Silverman told the Los Angeles Times in 1996.

Silverman jumped to ABC in 1975. As president of the network’s entertainment division, he was responsible for programming “Rich Man, Poor Man,” “Roots,” “Charlie’s Angels” and “Starsky & Hutch.” Famously, Silverman suggested to the producers of “Happy Days” that the Fonzie character be the focal point of the show. That suggestion contributed significantly to the show’s ratings success.

In 1977, Silverman was featured on the cover of Time magazine as the “man with the golden gut,” referring to his ability to know what shows would strike a chord with the public. In just three years, Silverman had reversed ABC’s flagging fortunes, boosting the network from third place to first in the ratings with programs such as “Laverne and Shirley” and “Three’s Company.” Though he had brought more sophisticated programming to CBS, he was credited with — or derided for — bringing to ABC what was dubbed “jiggle TV,” programming that made prominent use of scantily clad women to score in the ratings including “Charlie’s Angels” and “Three’s Company.”

Silverman told the Television Academy that the high point of his career came at ABC in the wake of “Roots.”

“ ‘Roots’ was a risk. Who knew whether people were going to be interested? It was about slavery. I didn’t know,” Silverman told the Television Academy as he was inducted into its Hall of Fame in 1999. “But we had the biggest ratings not only for ‘Roots,’ but also for our regular primetime schedule, and daytime was number one! You know, they talk about Camelot. It just doesn’t get a hell of a lot better than that.”

With ABC firmly ensconced as the No. 1 network, Silverman was looking for a bigger challenge. NBC lured him with the title of president and CEO. He boldly predicted that the Peacock would be No. 1 by Christmas, but he couldn’t deliver. Aside from “Diff’rent Strokes,” few of the shows developed under Silverman at NBC seemed to work. The network was further hurt by the American boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympics, which NBC had counted on airing.

As president and CEO of the entire network, rather than just entertainment programming, Silverman had responsibilities for sports, news, radio and other areas, and he was spread thin. One of his smartest decisions was to hire a hotshot young TV executive out of Chicago — Brandon Tartikoff — as president of the network’s entertainment division in 1978,

In 1981, NBC fell to its lowest ratings ever. MTM Enterprises chief Grant Tinker was recruited to replace Silverman. Tinker would preside over a remarkable rebound at NBC with Tartikoff’s help.

Rather than program shows elsewhere, Silverman formed the Fred Silverman Co. and ventured into independent production in the early 1980s with the animated series “Pandemonium” and “Meatballs and Spaghetti.” With funding from MGM-TV, he moved into primetime and late-night production, serving as exec producer of the syndicated talk show “Thicke of the Night,” hosted by Alan Thicke. The show was a notorious disaster.

After a number of primetime misfires, Silverman and partner Dean Hargrove found their first success in 1985 with a Perry Mason movie that returned Raymond Burr to the starring role; almost 30 more Mason telepics followed. He continued with the strategy of casting an older actor in a central role in a genre drama with “Matlock,” starring Andy Griffith; “Jake and the Fatman,” with William Conrad; “In the Heat of the Night,” starring Carroll O’Connor; and “Diagnosis Murder,” featuring Dick Van Dyke. All four series ran for years. Another show from the same mold was “Father Dowling Mysteries,” starring Tom Bosley, which ran for 44 episodes.

In the wake of the huge success of ABC’s “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” in 2000, Silverman exec produced a revival of the 1950s quiz show “Twenty One” for NBC.

After “Diagnosis Murder” ended its eight-season run in 2001, Silverman exec produced a series of telepics: “Murder Among Friends” (2001); “A Town Without Pity” and “Recipe for Murder” (2002), both featuring Van Dyke in his “Diagnosis Murder” role; “Without Warning” (2002); and “Drive Time Murders” (2006).

In 2010 Silverman appeared in the A&E documentary “The Battle for Late Night.”

Born in New York City, Silverman received an undergraduate degree at Syracuse University before going on to receive a Masters in television and theater arts from Ohio State University. In his Masters thesis, he analyzed programming practices at ABC.

The son of a television repairman, Silverman aspired to a career in television from early on. After stints at WGN-TV in Chicago and New York’s WPIX-TV, Silverman became, at age 25, the youngest-ever department head at CBS when he joined the Eye as head of daytime programming in 1963.

Silverman was inducted into the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences’ Hall of Fame in 1999. In later years, Silverman taught courses on television at USC.

He is survived by his wife, Catherine Ann Kihn, whom he married in 1971; a daughter; and a son.

In lieu of flowers, the family requests that contributions be made in his name to the Motion Picture & Television Fund.

Cynthia Littleton contributed to this report.

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