Silverman Rescues ABC Television’s Ratings

Fred Silverman, who had developed a shrewder sense of programming than most of his counterparts, took ABC from third to first in network television ratings, and the network’s fortunes declined after his departure.

Summary of Event

Fred Silverman, the first person to hold top programming positions at each of the three major television networks, left the Columbia Broadcasting System Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS) in 1975 to work for the American Broadcasting Company (ABC). In one year, ABC went from third to first in the ratings, an unparalleled feat in the history of broadcasting. Silverman left ABC for a position at the National Broadcasting Company National Broadcasting Company (NBC) in 1978. American Broadcasting Company
Television;broadcast networks
[kw]Silverman Rescues ABC Television’s Ratings (1975-1978)
[kw]ABC Television’s Ratings, Silverman Rescues (1975-1978)
[kw]Television’s Ratings, Silverman Rescues ABC (1975-1978)
American Broadcasting Company
Television;broadcast networks
[g]North America;1975-1978: Silverman Rescues ABC Television’s Ratings[01830]
[g]United States;1975-1978: Silverman Rescues ABC Television’s Ratings[01830]
[c]Radio and television;1975-1978: Silverman Rescues ABC Television’s Ratings[01830]
[c]Marketing and advertising;1975-1978: Silverman Rescues ABC Television’s Ratings[01830]
Silverman, Fred
Paley, William S.
Goldberg, Leonard
Goldenson, Leonard

Silverman worked with Fred Pierce Pierce, Fred (the president of ABC Television) to retool the already established 1975-1976 schedule. They used the “family hour,” Family hour (television) the first hour of evening network transmission, to experiment with new programs and new talent, saving their strongest programs, such as NFL Football, Baretta, and Starsky and Hutch, for the 9:00 p.m. (8:00 p.m. in the Midwest) slot. The strategy worked so well that ABC held a slim lead in ratings at midyear.

ABC was able to increase its lead with a string of midseason additions to the programming schedule. Laverne and Shirley
Laverne and Shirley (television program) became a successful Happy Days
Happy Days (television program) spin-off, and shows such as The Bionic Woman
Bionic Woman, The (television program) and Charlie’s Angels
Charlie’s Angels (television program)[Charlies Angels] cemented ABC’s top position.

ABC’s rapid success was the result of several factors. First, the network responded to the wishes of the viewing public, which were discovered through audience research. Second, the viewing public’s taste shifted in favor of action-oriented, sexually provocative shows. ABC provided this type of programming more quickly than its competition. Third, Silverman showed great ability to promote programs. Fourth, the managements at both CBS and NBC proved to be unwilling to change, offering opportunities for ABC to succeed with innovation.

Silverman’s remarkable success fostered a number of changes in network television operations. Particularly telling would be the other networks’ efforts to copy programming innovations. Histories of network television generally refer to the 1970’s as “the Silverman years,” indicating his power and influence.

Silverman had been at CBS since 1963 and had been the head of daytime programming before becoming programming chief in 1970. He carried many of his ideas and programming philosophies with him when he left for ABC. CBS had long been the top network in terms of ratings, but many of its programs, such as The Beverly Hillbillies
Beverly Hillbillies, The (television program) and The Andy Griffith Show, Andy Griffith Show, The (television program) were aimed at rural audiences. Silverman advocated a new strategy: He would target programs for a more urban, younger audience. The “baby boom” after World War II made the group between eighteen and thirty-four years of age a significant portion of the population. The strategy to target this group was not without risk, but the potential rewards were high. Advertisers liked the ability to appeal to the younger segment, and the audiences of the early 1970’s continued to watch Silverman’s CBS programs.

One of Silverman’s strengths was his masterful ability to schedule programs. Historically, network television scheduling theory had been based on the principle that the average viewer prefers to make as few choices as possible. Emphasis was on keeping a consistent flow of programs throughout an evening and giving viewers no reason to change channels. Silverman could build a schedule better than any of his counterparts. Although he never strayed far from the formula of adventure series and sitcoms with liberal doses of sexual innuendo, his shows were filled with likable characters and recognizable stars.

Silverman recognized the need to minimize risk. He understood the value of protecting a weaker show by having strong shows surround it and was not above “counterprogramming,” offering a show that would appeal to a small audience that was not interested in the “popular” program on another network at the time. Silverman also had the talent necessary to fix a script and to obtain the maximum amount of benefit from his shows through series spin-offs and cross-pollination of stars. Perhaps Silverman’s greatest skill was being able to realize what the public wanted and then offering it. He was one of the first to use and respond to audience research on a large scale.

When Silverman left CBS in 1975, his new employer, ABC, was the perennial also-ran in network television. ABC had fewer affiliates, a smaller operating budget, and less production capability than its competitors. ABC did, however, have a basically sound programming plan in place, and Silverman was able to make great strides by doing what he knew best: rescheduling, fine tuning, and promoting. Some executives at CBS were never entirely comfortable with Silverman’s down-to-earth attitude; those at ABC welcomed him with open arms because they were less concerned with image and more concerned with how many people were watching.

Silverman’s ratings triumph at ABC was fashioned in part by competitors’ shortcomings. Both NBC and CBS were complacent, conservative network operations, somewhat out of touch with the average audience member. The management structure at NBC was complex and cumbersome. CBS was still very much under the control of its founder, William S. Paley, a man who typically did not give his executives much freedom. ABC was able to move quickly and to change course dramatically in large part because it had not been terribly successful. Long accustomed to being in third place, ABC could only improve its position; thus Silverman had more freedom and more flexibility than he had at CBS.

Silverman had developed a shrewder sense of programming than most, but he also was able to maintain a genuine enjoyment for his work. He was perceived as more down-to-earth than his seemingly more elitist colleagues. Some of his critics suggested that he was so successful in programming for the masses because he was a “common man” himself. For most of his career, Silverman responded to these jibes as though they were compliments, exhibiting pride at his skill in responding to the desires of the average American.

Silverman was courted by NBC in late 1977 and left ABC when his contract expired in June, 1978. As with many executive changes, this one seemed to have more to it than an increase in salary and benefits. Silverman would become the president of NBC, and he would be fully responsible for network television operations. Some have said that the move was fueled by Silverman’s desire for more authority and flexibility. Others have noted Silverman’s desire to be seen as a person of vision rather than as a refiner of others’ ideas. For whatever reasons, Silverman left ABC and became the first individual to have held the position of head of programming at all three major television networks.

Fred Silverman speaks in Los Angeles in June, 1978.

(AP/Wide World Photos)

Network television programming is a complex undertaking. Certainly some of Silverman’s success resulted from luck, but he knew his target audience better than most and he recognized what network advertisers wanted: large numbers of likely customers for their products. When Silverman went to NBC, most observers expected him to continue the kind of programming he had shepherded so well at ABC, shows that featured young, good-looking actors who often did not wear much clothing. As Silverman talked of programming quality and the need to downplay the importance of ratings points, most people were shocked or at least pleasantly surprised. Whether Silverman would be able to take the programming high road given NBC’s previous history and current problems remained to be seen. What was clear was that ABC began to slide in the ratings race, as had CBS, after Silverman departed. Silverman’s plans of action at CBS and ABC were similar, but his success apparently could not be carried on by others.


Fred Silverman’s success had a major impact on network television programming. All three networks rushed to implement his strategy of appealing to the tastes of young urban audiences. Programming became more cyclic than creative, and a successful new program would soon spawn many imitators, resulting in overexposure.

Historically, the network programming philosophy had been to appeal to the broadest possible constituency. Television became a mass medium, with programs aimed at the lowest common denominator. For a number of reasons, this type of programming made good economic sense. Advertisers wanted a stable, consistent audience base, and they generally were not interested in supporting controversial programs. Costs of production were escalating rapidly, so failure was very expensive. Safe programs similar to those already on the air therefore had greater appeal than shows that differed and could offer either greater success or potential failure. The need to draw large audiences meant that shows could not appeal only to narrow interests.

Demographic experiments undertaken by Silverman at CBS and ABC changed television programming philosophy. Previously, the emphasis was on how many people were watching. The emphasis changed to whether a program could deliver a large share of a particular target market. Popular shows that appealed to the wrong demographics were canceled, to be replaced by programs that could better deliver the desired demographics.

The ability to target specific demographic segments pleased advertisers, but it also led to a drop in total network audience. As the networks became less interested in certain segments, including the very old and the very young, independent and cable stations began to gain strength and ratings by offering programs to these groups. Ironically, as the independent and cable stations began to offer programs for groups such as young children and senior citizens, additional “target markets” were created, and advertisers began to support independent and cable endeavors as well, often to the financial detriment of network programs and revenues.

A programming change that would prove to be a mixed blessing was the signing of talent, including performers, writers, and producers to exclusive long-term contracts. These contracts could lock in talent but played a large part in doubling the average production cost of a half-hour sitcom in just five years.

The ratings services began to generate “instant numbers” in the early 1970’s. As programming executives began to rely on them, shows were often given shorter periods in which to prove themselves. Networks became likely to buy a smaller number of initial episodes of each series and to try larger numbers of series. By the end of the 1970’s, even Silverman would have trouble finding enough “good” programs to satisfy the networks’ voracious appetites.

Silverman had the ability to create formulaic programs that appealed to audiences. The other networks tried to copy his programs but were not as successful. Silverman’s unique talents as a programmer and promoter always seemed to keep him a step ahead. He had a more “hands-on” approach than his network counterparts and seemed to be more attuned to the desires of the audience. Silverman also maintained an edge through his creative use of promotion. He would give his brief—often ten seconds—promotional commercials careful attention and would usually succeed in capturing a provocative or suggestive moment from a show to act as an effective enticement. Soon after Silverman left ABC, the network lost its first-place standing in the ratings. Many of Silverman’s programs were still on the air, but no one else at ABC was able to fine-tune and promote as he did. The shift was subtle but noticeable. ABC became more of an imitator than an innovator.

By the early 1980’s, all three major television networks were having difficulties. The programming changes initiated during the 1970’s continued to define the medium, but not always with positive results. Questions were raised concerning the networks’ motives for profits at the expense of long-term development and whether advertisers had too much power over program scheduling and development. Questions were also raised about a relatively new trend—organized boycotts and letter-writing campaigns aimed at cleaning up the airwaves by eliminating some of the sex and violence from shows—but the ongoing prevalence of such themes in both daytime and prime-time programming suggests that those campaigns had very little impact over the long run. Meanwhile, commercial television in the form of the big three producer companies lost viewership as cable TV and satellite TV systems proliferated the number of channels available to viewers.

Even as television struggles to remain a mass medium, it increasingly targets programs at narrower segments. As long as broadcasting remains primarily a privately owned, commercially financed operation, network programming will likely continue on the course set by Fred Silverman. American Broadcasting Company
Television;broadcast networks

Further Reading

  • Bedell, Sally. Up the Tube: Prime-Time TV and the Silverman Years. New York: Viking Press, 1981. A detailed look at the life and career of Fred Silverman. Pays particular attention to his tenures at each of the three major networks. Interesting reading, accessible to the general reader.
  • Gitlin, Todd. Inside Prime Time. Rev. ed. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000. An examination of the network television business. The author explains the emphasis on ratings and advertising, with much biting commentary about the networks and network executives.
  • Head, Sydney W., Thomas Spann, and Michael A. McGregor. Broadcasting in America: A Survey of Electronic Media. 9th ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2001. A detailed and analytic look at the electronic media. An excellent resource and one of the most popular textbooks in the field.
  • Quinlan, Sterling. Inside ABC: American Broadcasting Company’s Rise to Power. New York: Hastings House, 1979. Quinlan, a former ABC employee, looks at the history and development of the network, concentrating on personalities. Opinionated, but still offers a reasonably balanced perspective.
  • Slater, Robert. This . . . Is CBS: A Chronicle of Sixty Years. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1988. A historical narrative of CBS; more a chronicle of events than an analysis. Chapter 11 looks at Silverman’s tenure at CBS.
  • Sterling, Christopher H., and John M. Kittross. Stay Tuned: A Concise History of American Broadcasting. 2d ed. Belmont, Calif.: Wadsworth, 1990. A good overview of radio and television, organized both chronologically and by topic.

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