Prior to Linda Bell Blue's arrival at Entertainment Tonight 15 years ago, entertainment news was comprised mostly of features and fluff. The Monett, Mo.-born Bell Blue had already spent years in the news trenches, having worked as the executive producer of Hard Copy for six years and as the executive producer of news at KCBS Los Angeles for five years. In those jobs, she learned to chase every story with everything she had—going so far as to send mass-murderer Charles Manson a telegram in prison en route to landing a much-coveted exclusive with him.
When she got to Entertainment Tonight, she continued to produce the news with a passion to always be first, always be right and to own the story through its entire life-cycle. “ET was doing quite well on its own before I ever came along,” she says. “What we did was change the focus of the assignment desk and the news desk, and brought in more news-oriented producers. Changing the focus to news is what I knew would make it interesting to female viewers.”
Executives who work with Bell Blue say it's that ineffable instinct that makes her a great producer. “You really are only as good as your gut. She has the best instincts for what the public wants to see on that television show of anyone I've ever known,” says Janet Annino, executive producer of CBS's Rachael Ray, a former producer of ET and one of Bell Blue's best friends.
The first such story Bell Blue got to cut her teeth on at ET was the trial of O.J. Simpson, who had been accused of murdering his ex-wife Nicole and her friend Ron Goldman. Simpson's controversial acquittal in that case was issued in Bell Blue's first season.
“My challenge was how to make that story appealing to ET viewers, even though cable networks such as CNN and Court TV were covering it all day every day,” she says. “We spent our time finding the angles and the people who were part of that story. It brought ET to a place where you had to see what ET had on that story each day. The show became appointment viewing because of the news we broke.”
Bell Blue was doing such a bang-up job at ET that in September 2004, CBS decided to spin off another show dedicated to covering celebrity news, The Insider. To best deliver both ET and The Insider to TV stations, Bell Blue and her team devised the “triple feed,” delivering ET and The Insider to stations in different orders depending on stations' needs. Some stations air ET first and then The Insider, others air the two shows in reverse, and still others air only one of the shows and thus need only one feed. “Developing that system really took the business forward,” Bell Blue says.
With every year that Bell Blue has produced ET and The Insider, she's only had to work harder as the competition for celebrity scoops and news intensifies. However, it has made her thrive.
“Linda believes there is no substitute for hard work,” says Mark Steines, who co-anchors ET with Mary Hart, herself a B&C Hall of Fame inductee. “Perhaps it is her Midwestern roots, but she is by far one of the most dedicated people I've ever seen. Her appetite for what she does is insatiable.”
“You don't sit back and put your heels up when you work for someone like her,” Hart says. “Being number one is the thing that's so important to all of us.”
Remaining on top in today's media environment is harder than ever, as ET faces competition not only from its fellow syndicated magazines but also from a myriad of online sources such as TMZ, Defamer, Gawker and Perez Hilton. None of it bothers Bell Blue, who says that ET's brand is so strong that breaking celebrity news just drives viewers to the TV show: “Our research tells us that when people read a breaking story all day on the Web, it brings more viewers to ET. People know ET will have the complete story and tell it in a big way. The Web builds people's hunger for this sort of news.”
That competitive spirit—and great time periods on strong TV stations—has made ET the top-rated entertainment magazine for nearly 700 weeks. Yes, 700.
And Bell Blue's commitment to excellence gets noticed at CBS. “Linda's energy, creativity and tenacity never slow down, and as a result, Entertainment Tonight remains one of our company's crown jewels and continues to be at the top of its game,” says Leslie Moonves, president and CEO of CBS Corp.
Producing ET was never easy, but with the arrival of digital platforms, Bell Blue and her early-rising staff cover entertainment news 24 hours a day, seven days a week. News can break on the Internet at any time, and often does. ET and The Insider's Websites and Twitter feeds are constantly humming with updates and freshheadlines.
“No one here ever goes on vacation,” Bell Blue says, “and if they do and news breaks—as it did when Michael Jackson died—anyone who was away came right back.
“What I've really built here is an incredible team,” she adds. “I'm going to be inducted into the Hall of Fame, but it's one of those pyramids like you see on the beach. I may be on the top, but it's the people I work with who are lifting me up.”—Paige Albiniak