On TV, a Star Is Made 24/7
By Kevin Downey -- Broadcasting & Cable, 11/16/2003 7:00:00 PM
Get ready for an earful of "breaking news" reports and claims of having a "first look" or "exclusive" coverage. It's November sweeps, and that means Britney Spears is promoting a new CD with a TV special, and Hollywood is revving up its big movies for the holiday season.
By the time films like Tom Cruise vehicle The Last Samurai land in theaters, they will have been touted for weeks—in some cases, for months—by television's entertainment newsmagazines and movie-review shows, each shouting loudly that their content can't be found anywhere else.
This is the state of entertainment news, an increasingly competitive business built around show business.
Led by syndicated shows Entertainment Tonight, Access Hollywood and Extra, the business of covering Hollywood is exploding, both on broadcast and cable. But, while each presents a friendly image onscreen and has a spit-shine polish to its coverage, behind the scenes, things are civilized but not always so nice. Publicists are vying for as much exposure as possible at the same time media outlets are fighting over any tidbit that will set them apart from their competitors and, with luck, jack up their ratings. The hype is everywhere, not just on those dinnertime entertainment shows. Two weeks ago, Ellen DeGeneres, who had a starring voice role in Finding Nemo, did her entire talk show in conjunction with the release of the Disney movie's DVD. That's entertainment, and that's business.
In a way, entertainment news has always worked this way. For that matter, so has the news media. But, with the advent of the Internet and the proliferation of content-hungry cable networks, the average consumer is being bombarded now with a seemingly endless stream of news coming from Hollywood. MTV is, or can be, a wall-to-wall commercial for an artist, as it was last week when Spears caused a sensation on Total Request Live. That appearance was a big part of the evening entertainment shows later.
The leader of televised entertainment news, of course, is Entertainment Tonight. With its 23-year history and a national 5.5 rating that is higher than its two main competitors' combined rating, the show has a bit of a leg up on getting content.
Like the other entertainment news shows, ET is claiming its own corner of the market.
"I have many options of what to put on Entertainment Tonight, whether that is new trailers and new scenes, and I have to say no more than I say yes," said Linda Bell Blue, executive producer of Entertainment Tonight .
"Being on Entertainment Tonight is the feather in the cap for the studio, for the filmmaker, for the stars and the publicists who work on the films. We have a finite amount of time so we pick the best of the best."
While ET is far ahead of its competitors, it does have vulnerabilities. One is that it skews a bit older than the other shows.
Warner Bros.'Extra comes closest to following the ET format, but, like the other entertainment news programs, it is always refining an image to separate itself from its competitors. To that end, the show often highlights entertainment news geared to younger viewers, including information on music and concerts.
The show also emphasizes first-looks and exclusives, including previews of movies and TV shows in its Sneak Peek segment. Extra also includes footage from movie and TV-show sets, as well as red-carpet interviews. According to Nielsen Media Research, it averages a 2.4 household rating, the lowest of the big three entertainment newsmagazines.
Extra Senior Executive Producer Lisa Gregorisch-Dempsey points to her show's strong push for female viewers, including the regular feature "What Women Want."
She also says Extra doesn't spend time hyping itself; it just does what it promises. "Our slogan is, 'We deliver the stars,'" she said. "It's about the stars; it's not about us. Half the time, we hand the microphone to the star. And we are storytellers. The other shows are all about over-teasing and false teasing and then not delivering on it. Most people don't realize how much we trounce Entertainment Tonight going head-to-head in the major markets. So does Access Hollywood."
Despite those tough words, ET's most aggressive competitor is Access Hollywood, which is working hard to claim its own niche. The show, which averages a 2.7 national rating, claims to beat ET in top markets like New York and Los Angeles, at least in some demographics. Access tries to reach young audiences by maintaining a sense of humor about Hollywood and itself.
"Look at our relationship with the celebrities," said Access Hollywood Executive Producer Rob Silverstein. "We make fun of ourselves and make fun of them. In one Access Hollywood, you will see more fun than the other shows have in a week."
Access focuses on the type of entertainment news that other shows aren't covering, he added.
"People know when they watch our show that they are going to get the winners and the losers," Silverstein said. "Most things don't work in Hollywood. If something has been ultra-hyped and it doesn't work, you will find that out on Access Hollywood. The other shows have no concept how to do that."
Still, when it comes to snagging content for something as highly anticipated as The Last Samurai, almost every entertainment news show will have some coverage.
The key to getting better ratings than competitors, though, is having that coverage sooner than anybody else or having content that only one show can claim.
Getting exclusive content usually comes down to having good ratings, at least in the sense that the movie studios, TV networks and music companies are trying to get their product exposed to as many people as possible. But deciding which show gets what often has to do with the shows' relationship with the publicists and vice versa.
"It's a relationship-based business," said Lewis Kay, vice president of entertainment at the public-relations firm Bragman Nyman Cafarelli.
"I won't put down the importance of that, but, at the same time, we all try to do what's best for the client. It's their job to have relationships with us because we have access to the talent, and it's our job to have relationships with them because we want to get on their show."
And viewers follow celebrities and entertainment news around the TV dial. That's a fact that Arbitron found while testing its multimedia measurement tool, the Portable People Meter.
In July last year, for example, ABC's Nightline had nearly three times its average adult 18-34 rating in Philadelphia, where the PPM is being tested, when Bruce Springsteen was its guest. On the night of the Academy Awards, the rating among working women shot up on E! during its red-carpet special and then rose on ABC when that network began airing the Oscars.
Complicating matters, however, is the past decade's media-merger frenzy and the resulting giants Time Warner, Disney, Viacom and the pending marriage of NBC and Universal. Most of these conglomerates not only own the movies, TV shows and music being promoted but, in most cases, also own the entertainment news outlets that are covering them.
That includes ET and its movie-review offshoot Hot Ticket, which are produced by Paramount Television, which is owned by Viacom, the parent of myriad companies, including Paramount Pictures, CBS and UPN. Access Hollywood is owned by NBC, Extra is owned by Warner Bros., and movie-review show Ebert & Roeper is owned by Disney.
That raises suspicions that the conglomerates are pushing their highest-profile projects onto their own television shows, where the companies can reap the benefits of touting their own movies while driving up ratings—and, in turn, advertising revenue—on the shows.
Almost everyone involved—publicists, studios and entertainment news shows—says, however, that rarely happens.
"It's a situation of church and state," said Roger Ebert, of Ebert & Roeper. "Nobody I know on this show has ever received communication from anybody at Disney involving whether we are going to like or not like a Disney movie.
"Generally," the film critic continued, "the way we pick the movies we review is we look at the list of movies that are opening. We always include movies that are in major national release, but what we are proud of is that we always make room for an independent film or a documentary or a foreign film on just about every show."
ET's Blue agrees there is little pressure from parent companies to tout their projects. "We have great relationships with everybody." she said. "Warner Bros. is producing Troy and co-distributing The Aviator, and they want to be on the show that has the best track record and the most eyeballs. Mary Hart did a show from the set of Friends, which is licensed by NBC."
Ultimately, the movie studios, TV networks and record companies are out to make a buck. Pushing their product on their own TV shows while sacrificing maximum exposure would amount to shooting themselves in the foot.
Still, almost everyone involved also suggests that favoritism, or perhaps synergy, is sometimes helpful.
So the back-and-forth scramble for content goes on. That may seem like a relatively new thing in entertainment news, but it isn't, of course. It is, however, more intense than it used to be.
The explosion of entertainment news can be traced back to the late 1970s and 1980s, when People Magazine, Entertainment Tonight and Siskel & Ebert were taking off and redefining entertainment news. USA Today began reporting the entire Nielsen ratings list when it began publishing in 1982, and soon some other papers followed suit.
Around that time, the type of information coming out of the entertainment industry became more sophisticated and readily available. Consumers once in the dark about the inner workings of Hollywood suddenly had access to daily TV ratings, with the emergence of Nielsen's people meter in the mid 1980s and new technologies that enabled faster box-office tallies and CD sales.
It didn't hurt that, by the '70s, the studio system in Hollywood, which presented its stars through a publicity-filtered haze, was just a shadow of its once-powerful self.
"Of course, society in general has become much less respecting of public figures' privacy," said Tim Brooks, executive vice president of research at Lifetime Entertainment Services.
"Politics has become public, too, so the reporting we expect is much more unvarnished today. It's amazing to look back 50 years at how polite the mainstream papers were. All of that is gone. Some call it a coarsening of civilization or society, but whatever it is, we now expect it, and it hasn't been the downfall of Western civilization."
The driving force behind the proliferation of ET -type programs and the emergence of news outlets on TV and radio, in magazines, and on the Internet goes back to the business side of show business: money.
Shows like Entertainment Tonight are big money makers.
Although probably overstating, TNS Media Intelligence/CMR estimates that ET generated about $96 million in advertising revenue in 2002. That comes on top of licensing fees TV stations pay to air the show.
At the same time, ET -type programs are relatively inexpensive to produce. Kagan World Media estimates that it costs about $375,000 to produce a half-hour of a prime time newsmagazine and less to produce an entertainment newsmagazine.
"The strength of an entertainment news program is that it has relatively few costs," said Leo Kivijarv, an analyst with PQ Media LLC.
"They are not paying the actors, so the costs come from flying to events that they are covering, paying the host and hostess and the producers, who don't make that much money. So, from a cost perspective and in comparison to other programs, it's relatively low."
There is also a benefit to the movie studios, TV networks and record companies to have their products and artists touted on newsmagazines, but it's a bit less tangible.
But how much do shows like ET and Access Hollywood add to the box-office tally? It's anyone's guess.
"There has been a theory in the mass communications field for years, which is in essence that people will do something when somebody they consider to be a significant media person tells them to do it," said Kivijarv. "Ebert & Roeper was always used as the example because, when they said something was a good movie, invariably admissions at that particular movie went up compared to the other movies that were out."
In other words, the benefit to the studios for getting coverage on entertainment news shows is unclear but is assumed to be significant. That's also true from the perspective of advertisers buying airtime on the entertainment newsmagazines.
"We have absolutely no tangible proof of what makes someone go to a movie or buy a DVD, and I don't think there is tangible proof that these shows work better than Survivor or anything else," said Shelley Watson, senior vice president and media director at Starcom Worldwide. But you know that early adopters of entertainment news are the people who influence word of mouth. These are the people we rely on."
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