Silverman’s Rein-Ben-tion: Back on Base With Electus

The guy who moved Leno to 10 o’clock and put a Val Kilmer-voiced Knight Rider on the air is bringing credibility to Web video.

Ben Silverman’s Electus, formed last year following the executive’s much-maligned tenure at NBC, has emerged as a deal-making juggernaut in the online video arena, to the extent that many are crediting him with resuscitating a moribund medium. Over the past 12 months, the IAC-owned company has launched projects with four of the Web’s biggest players: Yahoo, AOL, MySpace and Facebook. Soon the company will move forward into territory previously seen as perilous — scripted content for the Web.

According to sources, Electus is developing a scripted series featuring “well-known TV stars” that will also incorporate multiple social and community elements. Besides the Web, Electus is active in TV and movies. Just last week the company announced a deal with VH1 to launch a reality series, Mob Wives. And recently the company hired Tony DiSanto, the former MTV executive behind hits such as The Hills and Jersey Shore.

But it’s online video where the company may have the most impact. “He’s elevating the whole medium,” said Andrew Budkofsky, evp of sales and partnerships at Break Media. For Silverman, such praise is impressive, considering last year he was being mocked for bungling both programming and politics at NBC. Of course, it helps Silverman’s case that NBC hasn’t exactly vaulted into first place since he left.

As one executive put it, “These days, it’s more of an honor to be thrown out of NBC.” Indeed, many speculate that Silverman may have been handcuffed by the network’s bureaucracy and the inherent limitations of programming half-hour sitcoms and hour-long dramas. Silverman was unavailable  to comment for this story.

“He’s a big idea generator,” said Nada Stirratt, chief revenue officer at MySpace, who collaborated with Silverman on Jerk All-Stars, a new series chronicling the rise of an underground urban dance movement. “This is his DNA. He’s a trend spotter. Sitting across the table from him for five minutes…he’s full of ideas.”

While Web video hasn’t lacked ideas, or ambition, the list of attempts by Hollywood is long, and messy. There was NBC’s sci fi bomb, Gemini Division starring Rosario Dawson, and the Michael Eisner-backed novel prequel, Foreign Body. Don’t remember the CBS book club series Novel Adventures? You’re not alone.

By the middle of last year, the combination of viewer disinterest and the brutal economy served to bury Web originals. So what is giving Electus and its partners confidence to push original series once again?

For one, audiences are readier to be entertained by Web video, as evidenced by the continuing rise of YouTube viral clips and Hulu, contends Electus COO Drew Buckley, who logged time at Yahoo during the infamous Lloyd Braun era.

“Now it’s time,” Buckley said. “Back then everyone said, ‘When is Lloyd going to deliver hits to Yahoo?’ Now we are seeing changes in the dynamics of users’ behavior.” This is true particularly in the way that content is shared, and even shaped in social media — an Electus emphasis.

EQAL CEO Miles Beckett, one of the creators of the Web phenomenon lonelygirl15, credits Electus for understanding the Web aesthetic. “The shows that are super popular online don’t look and feel like TV,” he explained, citing lonelygirl15 and Fred, the series of YouTube videos featuring a squeaky-voiced teen. Silverman, Beckett said, “is really good at formats. He knows what audiences like.”

Plus, many report that advertiser interest in Web video series is once again red hot. Buyers credit Electus for smartly inviting brands into the development process rather than trying to shoehorn them in after a show is launched. “They have the relationships and the support, but they also put the advertiser at the center,” said Craig Woerz, managing partner at Media Storm. “Nobody has time or budgets for ego projects these days when ROI is so crucial.”