Ben Silverman – bullish, passionate and ready for more
Ben Silverman needs no introduction to those who take the television business seriously. His prolific career has brought numerous hits to the US and international markets and also changed the way American networks look at shows coming from abroad.
A few years back, Silverman decided to materialize the full potential of his creativity and business flair by setting up Propagate Content. Now, his company is among the leading and fastest growing independent producers in the US with a pipeline of content delivered to big and small networks, streamers and tech giants. In this exclusive interview, Mr. Silverman reveals to Stanislav Kimchev what makes the company so successful, flexible and hungry for new challenges in the fast-changing content industry.
25 Words or Less
Mr. Silverman, Propagate is one of the world’s fastest growing independent content creation and distribution companies. Would you say that you have now achieved the main goal that you had set for the company upon its launch in 2015?
I always want more and feel we can do more and scale more. So, I would say we are continually looking to do more and to grow faster. I’m very proud of the people in the company. I find the executives, including Cyrus Farrokh, our leader and international executive and my partner, Howard T. Owens and Drew Buckley, our COO, and Isabel San Vargas, who runs our production platform, are just the best of the best. So, I expect the best when you’re surrounded by the best.

And despite the crisis, your company has been quite prolific, coming up with a slate of new shows. What have been some of Propagate’s latest hits and what projects do you have in the pipeline?
We are unbelievably excited about our franchise on Netflix called Untold, which is done really well all in and around the sports space. We are thrilled with the launch of LFG, about the U.S. women’s soccer team, and the fight for gender equality and equal pay, and the way that’s been received and impacted both culture and women’s rights. We are very excited about our new scripted launch on Fox called Our Kind of People, which is a brilliant drama, and we are also very excited, as is the world, for our American adaptation of the Eurovision Song Contest.

Indeed, American Song Contest, the US version of the Eurovision Song Contest, is coming to NBC. How hard will it be to produce it in America, and how do you plan to create the same hype Eurovision enjoys in Europe?
We have a diverse country that is almost like the way the European nation states operate, the way our states operate. We have a republic that has so much interesting diversity of culture and talent. Hawaiians are very different from Georgians, who are very different from New Yorkers, who are very different from Alaskans. So, I think we have an amazing opportunity to play with the distinct, unique cultures of the Americas and American life in a way that the Europeans can shine a light on the differences between the Turks and the Israelis and the French and the Germans and the Finnish. I’m really excited about it. I’ve wanted to do it for 25 years and finally being able to secure the trust of the European Broadcasting Union and the partnership with Peter Settman and Anders Lenhoff from Sweden has been great. The show and the casting already are amazing. So, I’m very excited about it and I think it will have a huge impact in the US.

Propagate is also one of the few U.S. companies that rely on strong cooperation with international partners. How important is this part of the business and what benefits have you gained from such partnerships?
It has always been an essential part of my own personal story as a history major, as somebody who has studied abroad in France and lived in London and traveled the world. I love breaking down barriers and connecting the world through stories and ideas, and I have always been a long term and great partner with my international friends. Whether it’s finding great IP that’s created overseas and reformatting it for America, or whether it’s creating programs about events that take place outside of America and highlighting those, or it’s tailoring content that the whole world will watch. I’m very proud of our deep roots in the global community and love, love, love traveling the world and meeting people, the hardest thing for me over the past period with COVID has been the inability to be with my international colleagues and friends and to travel freely. That has been the number one thing that has upset me about COVID and how it’s been managed.

Cherries Wild

Which markets in your opinion currently drive the creative trends in the industry?
I think that there is a lot coming out of the United States, as always, it’s called Hollywood for a reason and we really are the best at it. But I also am loving some of the content coming from France right now. I thought Call My Agent and The French Village were brilliant. I am always looking and partnering in South America. I speak both French and Spanish fluently, so it’s helpful to my process when I watch the shows. I really can translate them that way. Or if I want a partner in France or in South America, it’s very easy for me because I speak the language and I know the markets and have lived in both places. I also am sensing that the emergence of some new opportunities, but not that much original is happening as much as I would have expected. I thought the Asian market would have kind of unlocked more as an exporter, but it really hasn’t. And it’s harder to translate. I think the cultures are more specific than general, but you never know where a great idea is going to come from, and it’s always worth pursuing,

How about Central and Eastern Europe?
I think what I am seeing out of Eastern Europe is incredible. It is the emergence of a new technology class. There is so much brilliant engineering and scientific intellectual capital in Eastern Europe, and now it’s marrying up to commercial and kind of ambition from a creating tech opportunity. All those great chess players and math teachers are now becoming tech entrepreneurs, and before they would all run to America but now I see a lot of them starting to do work in places like Prague and Sofia and across Eastern Europe, and they’re starting to build businesses that are sustainable because with tech, you don’t necessarily need the manufacturing infrastructure. That should probably unlock more creativity, too.

We are always on the lookout for great formats to adapt in the USA and Lat Am as we have not only had success on the below you highlighted but we have acquired shows from Russia recently that we have set up at broadcast and there are other markets such as Poland and Hungary where we are either looking to acquire more content or build local production hubs.

What about selling the show? Is there a difference between pitching a show to a big TV network and a streamer, for example?
Yes. Both are equally arrogant. But there’s absolutely differences because the directions of the broadcasters remain pretty consistent and what they want to accomplish and how they want to continue to grow scale and big programmatic opportunities for their time periods. For the streamers, I think they kind of work out of both sides, they kind of want this hyper local content, but they also want global content. They’re kind of two-headed and you have to think of them that way. And then with the broadcasters as well, there’s much fewer American shows being able to fill old time periods so they’re going to start happening to look to do more co-productions and invest in more content earlier on and take more risk with originating content because Disney is not going to sell them their shows anymore.

You also have a successful international distribution business. What will you be offering at MIPCOM?
We still have an incredibly strong distribution business with American Song Contest (launching on NBC in the winter); our Fox business which includes the launch of Alter Ego (1 show this fall) as well as The Masked Singer (finished tape only). We have a great doc slate from Showtime and TMZ too, these are all priorities for MIPCOM.

Premium documentary is another priority for Propagate and we are always on the hunt for great stories and great partners. Our latest releases to mention include our Hillary Clinton doc which premiered at Sundance 2020 and now streams on Hulu. Notre Dame: Our Lady of Paris which covered the Cathedral fire and premiered on ABC in late 2020. LFG, our doc about the US Women’s Soccer Team’s fight for equal pay, which appeared at Tribeca this year and is now on HBO MAX. And, our sports documentary series, Untold which just launched on Netflix.

The world of entertainment is changing. So is the concept of TV, which is in a state of transition where linear and vertical distribution are being mixed on the various digital platforms. Are the traditional broadcasters now an endangered species facing the tech giants?
I think as it relates to the American landscape, many of the broadcasters are integrated into companies that do more than just broadcasting - NBC is part of a cable company, CBS is related to Viacom and to Paramount+ and Showtime, which is a direct consumer company now. They are growing their business in almost streaming mindset. Internationally, it’s been slower for the big broadcasters to kind of create that because they’re in smaller markets and they don’t have that connectivity, so they are definitely under threat. But there’s nowhere better for an advertiser to invest than on a broadcast channel. I think as long as the broadcasters can still acquire live events and big reality formats and sports, they will continue to thrive because they have a base with the audience and a relationship, and an ease of distribution, but they also have this huge ability to deliver advertising impressions for brands that the other platforms don’t have any of, and they have easy and transparent measurement. They have talked about the death of the broadcaster for 20 years and it’s always been premature. It is definitely a challenge as the audience migrates to other platforms and competition, but they still amass a larger audience at any given time than any single platform.

Our Kind of People

Propagate produced Apple’s first original series, Planet of the Apps. How did your cooperation start and are you working on other projects for them?
We are in development on three different shows for them: a comedy, a children’s show and a docu series. I would have hoped they would be taking more risk and investing in more content, but they are really going very, very slowly.

You also produce Twitter’s first entertainment series, What’s Happening. What are the main specifics of producing content for digital? And what are your plans in this segment?
I feel like every one of these platforms needs a version of premium content to continue to expand and diversify. And also, again, for means to communicate through advertisers. It is unfortunate that they scare themselves out of it at times, but I have always loved working with these platforms early, as I get to know them and learn from what they do and what they want to do. And sometimes being first is hard, but long term, I feel like it gives us an advantage in how we build our business.

For years, you were among the key commissioners of entertainment content for one of America’s biggest networks. Which job is easier to buy or to sell shows?
I prefer to package and sell because personally, as a creative soul, I don’t like having to say no to things that I love. Just because they may not be right for NBC doesn’t mean they wouldn’t be right for HBO, or that they wouldn’t be right for a cable network or a streamer. So, for me, I didn’t enjoy being at a network because I couldn’t see through all the projects I was passionate about. I really only could see through projects that were right for NBC. That was a lot smaller filter than I have. Like, I like doing Spanish language. I like doing so many different things and I couldn’t do them there.

What were some of the key milestones for your business during the past six years, and what new lessons did you learn tackling the challenge of the pandemic?
I learned that we are lucky because we have so many relationships around the world already built. So, we could just use our cell phones and get things done. It’s an advantage to be somebody who goes out into the market, who is very comfortable creating versus so many companies, which are filled with bureaucrats and middle level managers, who sit in their corner office, waiting for people to bring them ideas to react to. We, at my company, create ideas and generate ideas, and it really gave us an advantage in COVID and the pandemic because we could always outwork our colleagues and now we outhustled them, too. So, it ended up being something where we separated from a lot of our competition and got more done.

How do you personally see the future of what we still like to call TV business?
I see it as being super robust. I don’t think people are going to stop watching content until they have a chip implanted into their eyeball. We are going to have more and more video delivered to more and more people. And the big way that you are going to activate your content is with good stuff and things you like and things you connect to. And it’s a robust moment because the people who know how to organize and tell stories in a premium aspirational way are few and far between. And we have a company, an organization that is independent, global and creatively led. And there are really fewer and fewer of those enterprises left. So, I’m very excited and bullish for my business, for our cooperation and partnerships around the world and, in general, for anyone who wants to make content and can do it at a premium level, there’s a lot of runway left.
Ben Silverman, the Emmy and Golden Globe Award-winning media entrepreneur and visionary producer behind The Office is the Chairman and Co-CEO of Propagate Content which he co-founded in 2015. Silverman served as Co-Chairman of NBC Entertainment and Universal Media Studios between 2007 and 2009. After leaving NBC, he founded Electus which was later acquired by Propagate. Pioneering content at the forefront of the entertainment industry, Silverman has created and executive produced hits like Golden Globe and Peabody award-winning shows The Office, Ugly Betty, The Biggest Loser, and The Tudors, as well as hits like Jane The Virgin, Marco Polo and Flaked for Netflix, Fashion Star and Running Wild with Bear Grylls and most recently the FOX hit show Alter Ego.
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