By Staff Reporters
With this Issue, VideoAge launches the printed and Web editions of the “International TV Distribution Hall of Fame,” a recurring feature that pays tribute to the pioneers of international television distribution. It honors and recognizes a very select group of executives whose careers shaped an industry and in the process, helped the development of commercial television around the world. These men and women worked for Hollywood studios, film and TV content suppliers across Europe and entertainment companies from around the world. They operated without any kind of roadmap, writing the rulebook as they went along — yet transformed an ancillary business into a global industry. These are the individuals who built the foundation we all stand upon.
Mark Kaner finally got his wish. For years, the president of 20th Century Fox Television Distribution had been inviting his long-time friend and mentor Alan Silverbach as his guest to Fox’s L.A. Screenings party. In 2013, Silverbach accepted.
Silverbach, then 92, once again stood on the famed 20th Century Fox lot. He saw many of the now 100-plus employees in the Fox International Television division, and about 1,500 buyers from around the world. His thoughts took him back more than 67 years earlier when 20th Century Fox Television International’s Television department had a total of one executive — Alan Silverbach himself.
Silverbach spent his entire studio career — spanning more than 30 years — at Fox. In 1977, he formed his own independent television sales company, later recruiting Herb Lazarus — another of the pioneering figures in studio TV sales and the first executive Silverbach hired at Fox — to join with him as partner. The Silverbach-Lazarus Group (SLG) grew into a successful independent TV distribution company, taking on programming from top producers attracted to the company by its business model. Lorimar, Chuck Fries, Metromedia and London Weekend Television are just a few of the major players SLG helped propel into domestic television syndication and international distribution. He retired from SLG in 2010.
Silverbach, now 94, is among a handful of executives who helped forge international television distribution as a business. At the end of WWII, Silverbach — a bomber for the U.S. Air Force who flew 65 missions piloting B-26s — was accepted into a 20th Century Fox training program for Vets. Whereas his fellow trainees competed for film sales jobs in Europe, Silverbach opted to remain in New York City, believing, at 25 years old, he had more to learn by remaining at headquarters. He became an assistant to Albert Cornfield, the vice president of International Sales, soaking up the ins and outs of foreign film sales.
In the years following World War II, there weren’t many television sets in the international marketplace, or TV broadcasters for that matter. Families were busy putting their lives back together. Governments placed priorities on housing and employment. Against this backdrop, any studio film executive seriously considering a move into television was deemed — to put it in polite terms — unwise.
Silverbach described his life and career as “being lucky,” but as the saying goes, we make our own luck. Even with then-president of 20th Century Fox, Spyros Skouras, dismissing television as nothing more than a passing novelty, Silverbach regarded moving from theatrical into television as an opportunity.
His first assignment was to ascertain how many television sets were in Europe. He cabled the studio’s international film sales executives to provide him with data. “Are you nuts?” was the response.
That’s how it all began for Silverbach, but watching as television started to boom in the U.S. he firmly believed that Europe and the rest of the world would embrace the medium. Various executives came into Fox and departed — frustrated by the slow pace of the fledgling medium in contrast to the excitement of the film business. However, Silverbach always kept his course steady, committed to the idea of television, particularly because it was new.
Armed with such programming as Fox’s 1943 family feature My Friend Flicka, he traveled the world to meet with the earliest clients, media companies across Europe committed to building a presence for television in their respective territories.
There were no prices — or terms of any kind — yet defined for television programming in the late 1940s. “We priced it until they said yes,” Silverbach recalled. But there was an appetite for American stars among these early foreign clients who saw Hollywood movies as a way to help television gain a foothold within their countries.
This appetite, combined with Silverbach’s salesmanship and budding skills as a businessman, culminated in some of the first deals ever made in international television by an American studio. These activities didn’t go unnoticed by the other Hollywood studios of the day — and the international television distribution industry was born.
In his early years, Silverbach traveled to Europe and Asia, often joined by Fox’s film distribution executives. According to Silverbach, countries that had a theatrical infrastructure in place were the first to embrace television. London and Tokyo were among the cities he frequented, and Silverbach played no small role in assisting broadcasters as they lined up their programming schedules.
Silverbach’s first MIP-TV market in Cannes was in 1967, where Fox played a lead role in helping establish an American presence — an objective market organizers sought to achieve by approaching the MPAA and canvasing all the Hollywood studios. With MIP-TV then held at Le Petit Palais, Silverbach recalled the smoke-filled, overheated venue where the few hundred buyer and seller attendees made deals and struck up friendships as a global television marketplace began to take shape.
For Silverbach, the early markets were distinguished by how easily competition and comradery coexisted. As he described it, competitors socialized together and cared about one another. Even more significantly, friendships that began during these formative years would continue throughout their careers and even through retirement.
For many of this first-generation group of international TV distribution executives, Alan Silverbach contributed greatly to setting the pace and tone for the fledgling industry. Always one of the best-dressed men in the room, Silverbach exuded class and warmth, and a meeting with him was a fun event with plenty of laughter.
As he watched Silverbach and his wife Meredith enjoying themselves at the L.A. Screenings party, Mark Kaner reflected on his own association with Silverbach through the years. “I will always strive to emulate the same spirit of collegiality, integrity and fun that defines Alan Silverbach. Alan is one of those rare individuals who demonstrates that you can work hard, be profitable and enjoy every aspect of the job. Alan has always shown me — by deed and by words — that if you always take the high road, and never, ever sweat the small stuff, you will be both happy and successful. What can be better than that!”