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Entertainment Tonight

A bona fide original, a billion-dollar success story and one of today's most influential TV franchises 10/20/2006 08:00:00 PM Eastern

Entertainment Tonight began life as a short paragraph.

Early in 1981, Al Masini, founder and then-president of the rep firm TeleRep, jotted a memo to Mel Harris of Paramount Domestic TV, suggesting the idea for a “daily entertainment show.” It’s hard to believe today, but until then, that kind of show had never been done.

After months of development, the half-hour series premiered in syndication on Sept. 14, 1981. The critics were, to say the least, unkind. “We got instant 'We hate it’ from the press,” recalls then-Paramount Domestic TV VP John Goldhammer, who had spearheaded the series’ creation. The station community was skeptical of the idea from the start. Industry insiders predicted that the show’s days were numbered.

The extraordinary success that evolved for Entertainment Tonight speaks less to hasty judgments than to the power of an idea with grand vision. Indeed, the show’s days are continually “numbered,” with no sign of the tally stopping anytime soon. For 25 straight years, the series has been America’s top-rated entertainment newsmagazine.

Over a quarter century, it has earned an estimated $1 billion, due at least in part to the show’s being consistently among the top 10 syndicated programs each year. It’s not slowing down.

But there was a “short stint of complacency” in the late ’80s, says John Nogawski, now the president/COO of the CBS Television Distribution Group, whose tenure goes back to 1983, when he was in Paramount’s sales division. ET quickly regained momentum under the guidance of then-Domestic Syndication President Lucie Salhany.

With ET facing a new wave of stiff magazine competition then from the likes of A Current Affair, P.M. Magazine and USA Today on TV, as well as off-network arrivals like The Cosby Show, Nogawski says Salhany added “a whole new sense of vitality” to the show. ET increased its focus groups, tweaked the graphics and did a better job at trumpeting its exclusives. Because of all that, ET may have become the first syndicated series on a downward ratings trend to reverse course. Once the numbers stabilized, ET never looked back.

Much about the show has changed. Some hasn’t. The legendary, affable co-host Mary Hart recently celebrated 24 years of reporting celebrity journalism and, earlier in October, signed a multiyear contract to continue.

Numbers, however, are not what has made Entertainment Tonight a 2006 inductee into the Broadcasting & Cable Hall of Fame, only the third TV series so honored. ET planted the flag for an entire genre of television: the entertainment news program.

From that grew more celebrity news shows, 24-hour entertainment cable channels and America’s fascination with fame. Says Linda Bell Blue, executive producer of ET for the past 12 years, “This show created an industry.”

Adds Goldhammer, “ET changed the face of how the news business covers entertainment. It altered the entire perception. There is more than enough news to cover, and no one would ever think to ask that question now.”

In 1981, the idea that viewers might be interested in a daily half-hour entertainment wrap-up actually struck many as preposterous. To be fair, times were different: The world’s seemingly limitless craving for celebrity news had not reached a crescendo. In 1981, “Cruise” was a missile, not a movie star. USA Today was a year away from launching; CNN was one year old.

General managers sure didn’t get it. “Back then, we actually had to walk into stations where we wanted to sell it, pointing to People magazines with celebrities on the covers,” says Joel Berman, until recently president of CBS Paramount Worldwide Television Distribution, who served on that first ET sales staff.

Other hurdles required equal effort. Before ET, syndicated shows were “bicycled,” airing first in one market, then literally sent to another via the mail. But Paramount and its producing partners supplied satellites to various stations.

“The sales team created what amounted to a network for ET out of something that didn’t exist,” says Goldhammer. “It was the first essentially live, day-and-date show to be delivered by satellite and to [average out] its Monday-Friday national ratings so they could be sold to advertisers that way.”

ET also created the Hollywood clip-licensing business overnight. “We nearly put [film studios] into cardiac arrest,” says Goldhammer. “They didn’t know how to handle all our requests.”

ET had to prove itself in front of the camera. “There was a lot of temptation in the first year to become a tabloid show, to go with rumor,” Hart recalls. “I think, had we gone that route, we never would have been around.”

The show’s partners initially wanted ET to be TV’s version of the National Enquirer, but Barry Diller, then-Paramount chairman, and Michael Eisner, the president, insisted on its being “the place of record” for entertainment news. Goldhammer, the show’s executive producer through most of its first year, chose a compromise between the two approaches.

The show developed in fits and starts, trying three hosting combinations in the first two years and settling, in 1982, on Ron Hendren and Hart. By then, ET had hit its stride on the strength of three major scoops: investigations into the November 1981 death of Natalie Wood; the March 1982 overdose death of John Belushi; and the Twilight Zone: The Movie tragedy. These stories cemented the series’ cachet and credibility.

“When we were first credited on the nightly news,” recalls Hart, “it made a big difference.”

In the decades since, ET both fed the growing fascination for celebrity news and fueled it. “ET was there when Oprah Winfrey had to spell out her name because no one knew how,” says Terry Wood, president of creative affairs and development, CBS Paramount Domestic Television. And now, says Bell Blue, “a studio needsEntertainment Tonight to open a movie. It’s always going to make more money if viewers see it on ET.”

The show’s reputation is shared in the industry. “It’s one of the most important television shows you can get to promote your product,” says Kim Dower of Kim-From-L.A. Literary and Media Services, who has gotten Tim Allen and Burt Reynolds on ET in the past.

The show’s once-staid magazine format has undergone several renovations and is now a swift flow of clips and quotes, propelled by the show’s ability to conjure up the magic of exclusivity. Being there first—whether on the red carpet, a film opening or a celebrity crime scene—has long been the show’s trademark.

Doing so is no mean feat. “We do six satellite feeds a day,” says Bell Blue, who also executive-produces popular sister strip The Insider, which debuted in 2003.

From noon to 2 p.m. PT, two versions each of ET and The Insider are fed. “Those are shows that air in single markets, where they air separately,” says Bell Blue. For big East and West Coast markets, where there is double access, the staff simultaneously feeds out two one-hour shows at 2:30: one with Insider leading and one with ET first. “The Insider has given us a great opportunity to expand on the stories we’ve done,” Bell Blue says.

The brand extension also includes domestic successes (ET on MTV and ET on VH1) as well as ET Canada and international airings as far afield as Europe and Australia. Thanks to integrated marketing initiatives, ET’s information is available on the ET Website, your phone and on Yahoo!.

There is no more dogged keeper of the ET flame than Bell Blue, who has built on an already solid ratings base by serving the show’s core audience of women 25-54, and who encourages her international staff of 200 to go beyond the standard celebrity stories.

“The thing I’m proudest of in the last 12 years is that we really break a lot of news,” she says. “We’ve become the place where stars want to have their stories on the air.” Being first, however, takes a back seat to being accurate. “I’m a very conservative editor from that standpoint,” she says. “If we don’t know both sides of a story, we’ll wait.”

It isn’t an easy tradeoff in a world where celebrity innuendo has become big business. But in an ever-expanding, instantly accessible entertainment-news world, ET remains relevant and successful because it is a cut above.

That class is best represented by Hart, herself a 1997 Broadcasting and Cable Hall of Fame inductee.

“There’s no question Mary Hart is the lasting legacy of this show,” says Mark Steines, her co-anchor since 2004. And after 24 years, she remains as upbeat, enthusiastic and challenged by her job as ever.

“I had a great adventure in May,” Hart recalls, “as the only U.S. television journalist to be aboard the 'DaVinci Code Express’ going from London to Cannes, with Tom Hanks and the entire cast. They’ve been interviewed a million times for all their other movies, and we all know each other, but this trip was very special.

“Being on a train and jiggling around and trying to do standups, walking in the aisles, there was some bumping and keeping my balance to contend with, but it was really fun, and all of us shared that sense of excitement. It was late afternoon when we arrived in Cannes, just in time for me to race to do a couple more standups for that night’s show, do voiceovers and get it on the satellite back in the States. It was very close.”

But that’s Entertainment Tonight at its best: being first, being accurate, having fun, keeping the balance, going that extra mile and bringing it all back home just in time.

And the machine shows no signs of slowing down (both Entertainment Tonight and The Insider are cleared on stations through 2012) in a virtually limitless run. Every day, there’s a new angle and story to cover.

Perhaps that is the show’s hidden secret: Even after 25 years and more than 6,550 weeknight telecasts, it never gets old.

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