Studio's 'Insider' Bet

Times Staff Writer

The onslaught began nearly a quarter-century ago, when Paramount television dispatched a rookie salesman to local stations across the country to peddle a daring new show. He was armed with a stack of celebrity-filled magazines.

"We told them that the public had just an insatiable appetite for celebrity news," recalled the salesman, Greg Meidel. "We had to convince station owners that there was enough material available to fill up a half-hour every night."

With Paramount agreeing to pick up the tab for distributing the show through emerging satellite technology, stations signed on, giving birth to one of television's most lucrative and imitated shows -- "Entertainment Tonight."

Now, all these years later, Meidel is president of programming for Viacom Inc.'s Paramount Domestic Television -- and he's back making the same pitch.

Although the field has grown a lot more crowded since "Entertainment Tonight" was introduced in 1981, the studio believes there is room for one more show about Hollywood's glitterati.

After two years of planning, Paramount tonight will premiere "The Insider" on 192 stations, many of them owned by or affiliated with Viacom's CBS network. The 30-minute show will throw elbows with the rest of the red-carpet crowd to score the latest interview with Jude Law or Jennifer Aniston. But more important, executives behind the celebrity newsmagazine think they will land the free-spending young viewers whom advertisers adore.

"Past experience says this is going to work," said "Insider" host Pat O'Brien, a veteran of TV celebrity newsmagazines. "There is a reason so much money is being poured into this show."

According to company insiders, the production budget will exceed $40 million a year, expensive for a half-hour syndicated show. Paramount is spending an additional $12 million on promotion. What's more, studio sources said, Paramount lured O'Brien away from NBC with a paycheck of more than $3 million a year -- nearly twice his old salary.

The theft of O'Brien ruffled some peacock feathers. In July, NBC sued Paramount and O'Brien, who had been co-host of "Access Hollywood" since 1997. NBC dropped the suit after Paramount agreed to cover some of O'Brien's salary until his contract expired Aug. 31.

Paramount is hoping that the new show will hit the same rich vein as "Entertainment Tonight," which generates more than $100 million a year in profit for Viacom.

By pairing "Entertainment Tonight" with "The Insider" on CBS outlets, Viacom is creating an hour of celebrity-based programming in the lucrative 7-to-8 p.m. time slot. The conglomerate thinks the strategy will not only help the local stations but also pull more viewers into CBS' prime-time lineup.

Pushed aside for "The Insider" was the older-skewing "Hollywood Squares," which proved to be no match for the hipper hourlong block of "Access Hollywood" and "Extra" on NBC stations.

"These shows attract a very upscale and younger audience," said Jim Paratore, executive vice president of Time Warner Inc.'s Warner Bros. Domestic Television, which distributes "Extra" and "Celebrity Justice." "The real challenge is how to make your show stand out, because we all have access to the same information and the same stars."

Paramount contends that "The Insider" does offer something different.

"It will be the first time in a long time that viewers will be able to hear the stars speak for longer than 20 seconds," O'Brien said during a break from shooting promotional spots on his sleek new set.

It's a risky approach, given that attention spans of younger viewers can be measured in nanoseconds. But Paramount thinks the format -- giving stars a platform to promote themselves more expansively -- will lure bigger names onto the show. "The Big Dangle" is what some in the industry are calling it.

Instead of cramming 16 stories into a 22-minute episode, as "Entertainment Tonight" does, "The Insider" will feature six or seven stories told at a more leisurely pace.

Tonight, for example, the show is scheduled to feature interviews with Brad Pitt and Julia Roberts, as well as an extensive tour of the set of their upcoming movie "Ocean's Twelve."

Linda Bell Blue, executive producer of "Entertainment Tonight" and "The Insider," said the new show would be "more selective" than others battling for the same audience.

" 'Entertainment Tonight' is the celebrity show of record," she said. "It has an obligation to report virtually every news story."

The producers of "The Insider" make no apology for fueling the Hollywood machine. They know that exposure on "Entertainment Tonight" and "The Insider" helps hype movies, TV shows and DVDs. But those products, in turn, are the lifeblood of the companies that own the entertainment shows.

"This is a business, and we get it," said Terry Wood, executive vice president for programming at Paramount. "Stars use us and studios use us to get their stories out there and to launch their new movies. But we know how to package the information to make it work for us too. There's something in it for everyone."

Such back-scratching has proved more successful than the tactics of sharper-edged shows such as "A Current Affair" and "Hard Copy." They fell out of favor with audiences and advertisers and were canceled several years ago.

As "The Insider" arrives, though, those casualties remain a potent reminder of the dangers of deviating from the tried-and-true format. Still, even rivals say Paramount's gamble is probably a safe bet.

"Advertisers love the viewers who watch these shows. It's the obsession with all things Hollywood," said Ted Harbert, president of cable channel E! Entertainment, which makes its money reveling in the ups-and-downs of the inhabitants of Hollywood. "But the question is, how large is America's appetite?"

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

The showbiz news

A look at some of the television shows that cover Hollywood

*--* Average viewership Show Launched Host Distributor (millions) Entertainment 9/81 Mary Hart, Paramount 7.4 Tonight Mark Steines Domestic TV (Viacom) Inside 1/89 Deborah King World 4.6 Edition Norville Productions (Viacom) Access 9/96 Nancy O'Dell, NBC Univ. 3.8 Hollywood Billy Bush (Gen. Elec.) 3.8 Extra 9/94 Dayna Devon, Warner Bros. 3.3 Mark McGrath Domestic Television (Time Warner) Celebrity 9/02 Holly Herbert, Warner Bros. 1.5 Justice Carlos Diaz Domestic TV (Time Warner) Hollywood Heat 3/04 A.J. Hammer Court TV 0.7 E! News Live 10/91 John Burke E! Entertainment 0.2 cable channel

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Sources: Times research, Nielsen Media Research, Court TV

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