'Entertainment Tonight' and the Cult of Celebrity

With the movie awards season in full swing, it's hard not to think about the contradictions, prima donnas and brass-knuckled persuasion tactics.

And that's just "Entertainment Tonight."

For millions of people who don't subscribe to the show-business trades or, heaven forbid, commit columns such as this to memory, "Entertainment Tonight" represents a key source of news about the entertainment industry, a window into Hollywood glitz and glamour.

The 20-year-old show itself, however, has become something of a paradox, indulging in tabloid gossip one moment and fawning celebrity worship the next--one of many head-scratching elements that underscore the awkward manner in which the media go about covering themselves.

For starters, after years as one of the few games in town for televised entertainment news, "ET" now has plenty of company, including the competing TV magazine "Access Hollywood" and a full-time cable channel, E! Entertainment Television.

Perhaps for that reason, "Entertainment Tonight" has become extraordinarily self-referential in its old age. It's not so much about the stars anymore as how those stars interact with "ET's" talent--who, of course, carry on like stars themselves, mugging with celebrities in the "ET Photo Booth" or sharing a laugh backstage in the "ET One on One Room."

In this context, the show makes liberal use of the word "exclusive," as in "stay tuned for 'ET's' exclusive chat with Destiny's Child," which, at an event such as the Grammys, usually means "ET" talked to the group about 5 minutes before everyone else.

The irony is that while "ET" goes about conveying this coziness with celebrities on screen, the franchise seems to relish throwing its weight around behind the cameras, striking fear in the hearts of publicists in what many describe--from the safety of anonymity, of course--as an arbitrary, almost childish sense of entitlement.

Specifically, "ET" won't cover events unless promised "first position" in terms of where their cameras are situated along red-carpet arrival lines--which makes sense, as a practical matter, only to the extent it ensures the show gets access to those few stars who might not pause for every camera crew along the way.

For the most part, though, the emphasis on "first position" is simply viewed as a way "ET" lords over "Access Hollywood" and other perceived rivals. As Pat Kingsley--the head of PMK, a publicity firm with enough A-list clients to wield considerable clout itself--observed: "If you go to any red carpet you'll see them first in line. In that regard, they're a 600-pound gorilla. The No. 1 [show] can command that." (In Hollywood, even 800-pound gorillas lie about their age and weight.)

Kingsley added that this pattern is hardly confined to the entertainment programs but extends to morning or late-night shows, which, to varying degrees, insist on having guests first. "Whoever's No. 1 can call the shots, and they do," she said.

That said, publicists and entertainment reporters say "ET" is prone to unique moments of petulance, including recent backstage flare-ups at the Golden Globe and Soul Train Awards. "ET" will even leave an event, sources say, if staffers perceive the show is not given its due or "Access Hollywood" is treated too well.

Linda Bell Blue, "ET's" executive producer, who took over the program in the mid-1990s after a stint at "Hard Copy," declined to be interviewed. A spokeswoman said the decision was made at a corporate level by the distributor, Paramount, because "ET" is in the midst of a banner year ratings-wise and "our numbers speak for themselves."

Unfortunately, even the ratings betray a certain schizophrenia. "ET" is easily the top-rated entertainment newsmagazine on a national basis, doubling the audience for "Extra" and "Inside Edition"--with an even wider edge over "Access Hollywood"--since the TV season began.

Still, in Los Angeles, the world's entertainment capital, "ET" gets its clock cleaned. During the recent February rating sweeps, the show placed fifth among the seven local VHF stations in its time slot weeknights on KCBS at 7, behind "Extra" among others. "Access Hollywood" averaged almost 340,000 viewers a night locally, versus roughly 190,000 for "ET"--a pattern that also held true in New York.

Granted, the CBS stations carrying "ET" in those cities are perennial also-rans in the ratings, but one would think the show has been around long enough to compensate for that handicap.

"You get the rest of the country with 'ET' and you get the big markets with us," said "Access Hollywood" executive producer Rob Silverstein. "There's no monopoly anymore. We deliver the big markets."

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The final problem, and potentially the most troubling, involves possible conflicts, which have increased since Viacom acquired CBS, putting Paramount and CBS under the same vast corporate umbrella.

"ET" has dismissed that any favoritism is shown toward sister entities or its parent company, just as "Access" pooh-poohs the fact it is produced by NBC. "We report the good news about NBC and the bad news about NBC . . . and nobody has ever said to us, 'Don't report this, don't report that,' " Silverstein said.

Yet even in the industry, few people seem to entirely believe that. There has been muttering, for example, that "Access" has been more aggressive than "ET" in reporting on controversy surrounding CBS' "Survivor," from coverage of former contestant Stacey Stillman's lawsuit alleging the original show was rigged to last week's brouhaha about castaway Michael Skupin's injury and why footage of the accident wasn't broadcast.

Given that "ET" has been around two decades with the Paramount logo affixed to it the whole time, one might argue the public is aware of that lineage; still, how many casual viewers understand the far-flung holdings under Viacom's domain, a connection seldom if ever revealed?

Bob Steele, senior faculty and ethics group leader at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies in St. Petersburg, Fla., said even if most viewers are indifferent to such conflicts--which appears to be the case--they should at least be disclosed.

"The public deserves to know this information," he said. "Even if some viewers don't want it, it's valuable information, upon which [people] can make decisions about journalistic quality and credibility."

In addition, Steele noted most viewers don't draw sharp distinctions between such magazine shows, local news and prime-time newsmagazines, meaning programs employing such a format should maintain a degree of journalistic professionalism and detachment, as opposed to promoting the equivalent of "our Mary Hart and Bob Goen's exclusive 'ET' sponge bath" with Russell Crowe and Julia Roberts.

To those who say the public considers entertainment news fluff, Steele contends if it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it ought to try waddling like one. "[People] see programs about information and entertainment as what they would call 'news,' " he said.

Clearly, the appetite for entertainment news remains healthy, and news outlets function as promotional tools for parent networks so regularly these days that griping about broadcasting's lapses in journalistic etiquette often feels pointless. Why bother to complain, after all, when the numbers speak for themselves, and no one wants to risk making a 600-pound gorilla angry.

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Brian Lowry's column appears on Wednesdays. He can be reached by e-mail at brian.lowry@latimes.com.

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