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Tufts grad to become top NBC programmer

Ben Silverman, seen here in town after speaking at a Combined Jewish Philanthropies event in February, has been named co-chairman of NBC Entertainment. (wiqan ang for the boston globe/file)

Ben Silverman has never been one to move slowly. Now, the 1992 Tufts University graduate has vaulted to become co-chairman of NBC Entertainment and NBC Universal Television Studios, where he will be in charge of the faltering network's entertainment programming.

Known for repackaging foreign shows such as "Who Wants to be a Millionaire?," "The Office," and "Ugly Betty" for US audiences, the 36-year-old Silverman got the job even though he hadn't worked through the network ranks. He'll share the post with longtime NBC executive Marc Graboff, who has worked primarily on the network's business side.

The two men will replace ousted chief entertainment executive Kevin Reilly, who had only recently been granted a contract extension. NBC gained critical acclaim this season with shows such as "30 Rock" and "Friday Night Lights," but has been mired in fourth place. And this spring's ratings were among the worst in the network's history.

Silverman, who studied history at Tufts, began his rapid rise as an agent at William Morris, where he was able to identify -- and suggest remakes of -- foreign shows while working in the agency's London office. In 2002, he started his own production company, Reveille LLC, which he named after his experiences at a Jewish camp in Lenox.

Even before snagging the plum post, Silverman was a favorite son at Tufts. The university will honor him next week in California at the school's third annual P.T. Barnum Awards, which recognizes graduates who have excelled in arts and entertainment.

In an interview last night, Silverman said he wants to use his success to help Tufts expand its film and television classes so he can hire graduates.

"I have so many Boston connections and Boston roots," he said. "Half of the team of 'The Office,' from B.J. Novak to Steve Carell to Greg Daniels, has had Boston experiences. My new boss Jeff Zucker is a Harvard man."

Silverman's uncle also served in the war with Ted Williams, which, he said, makes him a "die hard Red Sox fan."

Recently named one of People magazine's most eligible bachelors, Silverman has a reputation as a man about town in LA. When he came to Boston this spring to speak at a Combined Jewish Philanthropies event, he started a rumor that he was on the hunt for a date, which kept the women in the audience on their toes. He sprinkled promises of juicy celebrity gossip into a speech about the future of television and his thoughts on Middle East politics.

Silverman said yesterday that NBC viewers can expect "the kind of stuff that gets mass audience." Still, he said, he planned to stand behind such shows as "Friday Night Lights," which Reilly renewed for another season despite low ratings.

"I'm a big fan of ' Friday Night Lights,' " he said. " 'The Office' followed a similar process. I'm waiting for these shows to pop. They kind of gain momentum."

Like its rival networks, NBC is struggling to build new advertising models at a time of fragmented viewership, DVR use, and a migration to the Internet. As a producer, Silverman has developed Web-specific programming, and has pioneered some of the product-placement arrangements that have been prominent on "The Office" this season.

Morgan O'Sullivan, who co produced the Showtime series "The Tudors" with Silverman, said the appointment is a "bold move" that shows NBC is placing creativity over corporate interests. He likened the naming of Silverman to the days of "The Mary Tyler Moore Show," when creative producers also ran the business, or as O'Sullivan put it, "when the inmates ran the asylum." Robert J. Thompson, director of Syracuse University's Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture, also compared Silverman's potential to legendary "Mary Tyler Moore" producer Grant Tinker, who went on to run NBC during a golden period.

Julie Dobrow, director of the communications and media studies program at Tufts, said Silverman was a no-brainer for the Barnum award.

The only snag, she said, is that Tufts has already finalized its video presentation for the awards ceremony and it doesn't mention the new NBC gig. This happened at last year's ceremony, too, when awardee Meredith Vieira was named as Katie Couric's replacement on "Today" just before the event.

"It's kind of a moving target for us, these folks in entertainment," Dobrow said. "Likewise with Ben, we're thinking on our feet here."

Globe staff writer Joanna Weiss contributed to this report.

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