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Zoom in on Celebrity

The Insider promises an in-depth look at the stars 9/12/2004 08:00:00 PM Eastern

The nerve center of Paramount's Entertainment Tonight
and new spinoff The Insider
is located inside a windowless building. As many desks as possible are crammed into the space. Forget privacy or décor.

It's 5 a.m., and the place is buzzing. Despite sleep deprivation, the staff is cheery. Credit the work rush. They're still on a high from grabbing the exclusive on the impromptu Vegas wedding of hotel heiress Nicky Hilton.

Such is the devotion to celebrity escapades. "We wouldn't want to be anywhere else," says Insider
senior producer D.J. Petroro.

At the eye of the storm sits Linda Bell Blue, executive producer of ET
and The Insider, which is as large in scale and scope as ET. "Twenty-four years ago, Entertainment Tonight
launched a new genre of entertainment-news reporting. And on Sept. 13," she promises, "we're going to do that again with The Insider."

ET
and The Insider
are designed to complement, rather than overlap, each other. Due to its clearances and concept, Insider
is the syndicated show voted most-likely-to-succeed this season by many industry observers. While ET
hits the news of the day—some 25 stories per half-hour—The Insider
slows down to take a closer look.

The Insider's first coup, the one that guaranteed it life, was selling Dennis Swanson, chief operating officer, Viacom Television Stations Group, on a new access show.

"This is something that makes eminent sense for us. It's a spin-out of ET, a franchise show that has been successful for three decades," Swanson says. "We had all last year to do Insider
segments and prime the pump."

Dr. Phil
taught Paramount the logic of spinning out a brand; The Insider
was the studios' chance to do it again. Syndicated shows that hit—ET, Judge Judy, Dr. Phil, Oprah—are like blockbuster movies, easily raking in $300 million or more a year.

Almost two years before The Insider
was scheduled to launch, Swanson agreed to give it access slots on nine CBS owned-and-operated stations. From there, clearing the show was easy. Constructing it was the challenge.

The Insider's second coup, or least its most public, was luring Access Hollywood's Pat O'Brien from NBC Universal, where he was a franchise. "He was our No. 1 choice if he was available," says Paramount President of Programming Greg Meidel.

Luckily for Meidel, who counts O'Brien among his close friends, O'Brien's contract with NBC expired in August. Paramount agreed to up his salary—$4 million-plus per year—and the deal was done. After an initial legal skirmish with NBC, Paramount had its "ultimate insider."

"I've developed working friendships with these people," says O'Brien. "The key word is trust. I don't get a major movie star and ask about all his marriages." Still, he isn't afraid to ask the hard question: "It's how you ask it and when you ask it."

When Nicky Hilton eloped, for example, ET
had all the facts and some exclusive photos, says ET
senior producer Brad Bessey. The Insider, on the other hand, was behind-the-scenes all weekend with the Hilton sisters, keeping a video diary of the bachelorette party and the ensuing nuptials.

And despite what ET's competitors love to whisper—The Insider
is tabloid, it's Hard Copy
reincarnated—everyone involved swears the new show avoids sleaze.

Indeed, both magazine shows are designed for lucrative access timeslots, and they run in multiple combinations: ET
first, Insider
second; reversed; each show alone.

That means shooting three different opens and closes every day. But whether it's more daily feeds, weekend shows on MTV and VH-1, or breaking news in the early hours of Sunday morning, Bell Blue is ready.

So is Good MorningAmerica
correspondent Lara Spencer, who joins O'Brien in New York shortly after giving birth to a baby girl. Spencer's new show should feel familiar to her: The Insider
will share a New York sound stage with GMA. Auditioning for The Insider
was a breeze, she says. "I was very relaxed because I didn't think I'd get it. It's a dream come true."

But it's a demanding one. Partner O'Brien keeps a tough schedule. He gets up at 4:30 a.m. to hit the gym and gets to the office by 6. He didn't take time off after hosting MSNBC's Olympics, either. In fact, on his first day back in Los Angeles, he delivered an exclusive interview with the forensic investigator on the Kobe Bryant case.

He did it from the Insider's sleek new set, the centerpiece of the show.

Designed by Steve Bass, the mastermind behind the top-of-the-line sets for the Emmys and Grammys, it's filled with floor-to-ceiling plasma screens. The set is flashy but warm, adaptable to all sorts of situations. ET
also is getting a new set, although it will stay recognizable to viewers.

But cosmetic upgrades don't come cheap.

At $35 million to $40 million, The Insider's production tab will easily outpace any new first-run syndicated show, including NBC Universal's The Jane Pauley Show. But flush with syndie leaders ET, Dr. Phil
and Judge Judy, Paramount can afford the risk.

Now the show just has to live up to its name.

September
October