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A troubled season for NBC chief Fred Silverman

NBC most ballyhooed show of the season -- the self-described "daring" Australian import "96" -- may turn out to be the downfall of NBC president Fred Silverman.

The sexually exploitive episodic series deals with the self-described "kinky" adventures of a group of people living in an apartment complex. It premiered last Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday in an NBC attempt to "blitz" its way into top ratings. The show is scheduled to continue on a regular basis on Friday nights at 8, opposite CBS's successful "Dukes of Hazzard," which is the "lead-in show" (immediately preceding) the fabulously successful CBS "Dallas."

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The Wednesday premiere of "96" was not an absolute "bomb," but it did not manage to garner the 30 percent share of the audience usually considered the minimum for a successful series. It was attacked by critics throughout the nation. On Thursday night its audience dropped a bit, and on Friday night the overnight Nielsen reports from the major cities indicated that "96" was turning from a mere disappointment into a disaster. Less than a 25 percent share of the audience was being forecast.

Officials from NBC's parent company, RCA Corporation, who have been watching carefully but maintaining a low public profile in NBC affairs, are chagrined that the corporate image is being endangered by the double spectacle of a tasteless, bad show that hasn't even pulled in the large audience which in some circles might justify its airing. They are also aware, however, that perhaps the one literate, critically approved show of the new season -- ABC's "Breaking Away" -- is also in trouble. So quality is not the overriding factor -- scheduling and counterprogramming by the top network executive often makes the difference.

RCA officials are also miffed at Mr. Silverman for his apparent slowness in organizing some sort of NBC participation in the rapidly developing field of cable TV programming. Both CBS and ABC have already formed cable subsidiaries, with CBS having already applied for permission from the Federal Communications Commission to actually own a cable system. Early reports from within the FCC indicate that the commission is leaning toward approval of such action, which would be a retreat from the previous FCC position that over-the-air networks should refrain from taking part in what might be perceived as the conflict-of-interest cable business. Such a decision would place CBS ever further in the lead in the network race toward cable.

One RCA executive, who declined to be quoted at this time, said to me: "Maybe time has just passed Fred Silverman by."

Meanwhile RCA is preparing for the March 22 introduction of its new SelectaVision VideoDisc system. The much-heralded launching of this monaural system will represent 17 years of research and a $150 million investment by RCA. The discs will sell for between $15 and $25 and the player for less than $500.

Thus RCA is especially image-conscious at this time, even though Mr. Silverman and NBC are not directly involved in the SelectaVision operation.

NBC, which started its own version of the new season with the amazingly successful "Shogun" miniseries, has gone steadily downhill in the ratings ever since. RCA has given every public indication of its faith in Mr. Silverman, even to the extent of extending his alleged million-dollar-a-year contract for three additional years. However, the apparent failure of his current programming, added to his apparent disregard of cable as a factor in NBC future planning, is causing top RCA executives to rethink his place in NBC's future.

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Industry observers wonder if the introduction of a monaural system this year with tentative plans to make it partly obsolete next year with a stereo system is wise. If the DiscoVision introduction through all existing RCA outlets proves to be less successful than anticipated, it is probable that RCA will be searching for "a sacrificial lamb" to satisfy disgruntled stockholders.

But for now, RCA rolls along merrily with its two greatest moneymaking subsidiaries -- Hertz and CIT -- having better years than NBC. RCA spokesmen try to make it clear that too often it is forgotten that NBC does not represent RCA's main source of revenue.

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