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HOWARD ROSENBERG

'E.T.' Embraces the Vain and Vapid With a Vengeance

September 03, 1988|HOWARD ROSENBERG

The first thing you learn in Journalism 101 is that reporters should not kiss the people they're interviewing.

Ted Koppel doesn't do it. Mike Wallace doesn't do it. Bryant Gumbel doesn't do it. Barbara Walters doesn't do it . . . often.

No one ever accused "Entertainment Tonight" of practicing journalism, however. Not recently, anyway. On an "E.T." importance scale, the rules of good journalism now rank considerably lower than the featured gams of longtime co-host Mary Hart.

This much lower:

There on "E.T." last Monday night was reporter Jeanne Wolf with her breathless account of how Emmy nominee Ann Jillian had spent part of the previous day getting ready for Sunday evening's Emmy telecast. A gushing Wolf opened by showing up at Jillian's house and, in front of the camera, giving her one of those Hollywood smoochie/huggie greetings that are invariably accompanied by a round of dahlings . Then they all got into Jillian's limo for the ride to Pasadena, where there would be more kisses and hugs along with a brief resume of Jillian's life and career.

"E.T." executive producer David Nuell said that did not bother him. "If there's an honest emotion that happens during the course of an interview . . . I think it's OK," he said.

Not that such cloying performances are an exception on Paramount's "E.T.," which has gone through many lives and personalities since premiering in 1981 en route to becoming a perennial member of Nielsen's top five syndicated series.

These days, however, it sometimes slips out of the top 10.

In recent years, "E.T." has found itself victimized by its own success with the emergence of imitators that tended to make the original less distinctive--and less desirable. Add to that competition from entertainment news-minded local newscasts and such trendy tabloid series as Fox's "Current Affair," and it's easy to see why national ratings for "E.T." have dwindled.

And why Paramount reportedly has mandated the racier show that is now on the air.

On Sept. 12, "E.T." is scheduled to take another turn by instituting an altered format that will include "a more topical look at the top" and a "more newsy feel," Nuell said. That sounds like gossip. "If reflecting what people are talking about is gossip, so be it," he said.

Is "E.T." doomed to become "An Entertainment Affair"?

Through the years, "E.T." has rarely been as good as it should have been, putting too much emphasis on puffery and too infrequently nosing beneath the surface of an industry that cried out for serious scrutiny. The show has been very bad at times.

But it has never been as bad as it is now.

Observing the show today, it's boggling to recall that Ron Powers was once the "E.T." media critic, that it was Wolf who provided TV's most diligent coverage of the Christine Craft case, that despite an inclination to be a marshmallow, "E.T." once found room for some talented journalists among its airheads and occasionally allowed them to do interesting work that partially balanced the fluff.

An example that immediately springs to mind is former "E.T." regular Scott Osborne's first-rate reporting a few years ago on the alleged abuse of animals used for films and TV. What would be the chances of such work surfacing on today's "E.T."? About that of a gerbil being picked to play Lassie.

"E.T." has always been a press agent's sweetest dream, anxiously and unquestioningly embracing celebrities and their projects, generally shying away from offending the industry of which Paramount is a part. And its items and stories continue to be promotional vehicles for their subjects. But now, as "Entertainment Tonight" maneuvers to regain its momentum, it seems determined to go even a step further by also becoming a flesh-deep Titillation Tonight.

Wednesday's half-hour was typical.

"Today's hottest entertainment news is of a storybook romance gone cold," Hart led off. "After months of speculation and rumor, actress Julianne Phillips has filed for divorce from rock superstar Bruce Springsteen. Reports of problems in the marriage first surfaced this spring," Hart continued. Ooooooh.

She went on to mention gossip about Springsteen's relationship with his female backup singer, before moving on to this hot item: "And another rock romance on the rocks--singer Bob Seger has filed for divorce."

And on and on "E.T." went, being too shallow even to be labeled superficial. "Style is a key element of celebrity," Hart reported. "Who has it and who doesn't often separates the superstars from the also rans. Here's a look at the world's 10 most stylish people, according to Us magazine."

What followed were clips and photos of the Us honorees. Hart: "Arsenio Hall has that well-tailored look that doesn't clash with his famous personality." Hart again: "With Kirstie Alley's figure, anything would look sexy."

In case that was too heavy for viewers, Hart and co-host John Tesh lightened it up.

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