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A Day on the Show-Biz Beat With 'ET' : Behind the cameras of 'Entertainment Tonight' as it comes up on Show 2,000

May 07, 1989|PATRICIA WARD BIEDERMAN

"E\o7 ntertainment Tonight" will air its 2,000th show on Friday. Although thumped by critics since it debuted on Sept. 14, 1981, the syndicated program has survived. Entertainment reporters are now as common on TV as weather reporters, in part because of "ET," which has remained television's leading news show devoted solely to the entertainment industry.

Last September, at the start of its eighth season, "ET" introduced a new format, with glitzier graphics, strobe-light pacing and two new features--its opening Inside Story and the ET Insider, a gossip-column-style commentary by co-star John Tesh.

While some observers say "ET" is as lightweight as ever, insiders contend that the format change has given the show a "harder edge" and credit it with pumping new life into the enterprise. As evidence, Paramount points to a 25% rise since November in the number of stations airing "ET" in the coveted hour before prime time--to 53 stations in the top 100 markets (it is carried by a total of 165 stations). Critics may not like "ET," but, if ratings are to be believed, 10 million people who watch television do.

Following is a behind-the-scenes look at how a typical day's show--in this case, No. 1,984, the April 20 edition--is put together.

It is a few yawns past 5 o'clock in the morning. The sun hasn't risen yet on the Paramount lot's huge blue-sky backdrop, but in the Mae West Building, Jim Van Messel is already presiding at his second meeting of the day.

As the "ET" machine shudders to life in the pre-dawn hours of April 20, 1989, all eyes are on the videocassette recorder in the office of Van Messel, the program's senior producer. The start of a typical day. . . .

The shape of any day at "ET" is determined by the fact that the show must be ready shortly after noon to be fed to the outside world by satellite. The daily 12:30 p.m. deadline is a time bomb beneath the feet of the show's 125 staffers as they work throughout the morning. "We are mice on a treadmill," Van Messel says as he reviews the story lineup for Show No. 1,984 with members of the "ET" staff.

The basic elements of the show were determined at an early afternoon meeting the day before. Now the lineup must be firmed up, the taped stories given final form, a script fashioned for co-stars John Tesh and Mary Hart.

One of Van Messel's first decisions this morning is to kill a tentatively scheduled story. It is an interview with the girl who always had her back to the camera as Patty Duke's identical cousin on Duke's 1960s ABC show. "ET" had expected to see the woman who actually doubled for Duke. Instead, the piece, done for "Nick at Night" on the Nickelodeon cable channel, is an unfunny spoof.

Van Messel moves through the lineup story by story. Today's opener--Inside Story--is on Steven Stayner, kidnaped in 1972 at age 7 and sexually molested over the next seven years. Stayner, who eventually escaped his captor, is the subject of a May miniseries on NBC.

The Stayner piece, which includes clips from the miniseries, interviews with stars and a few words with the real Stayner on location, runs just over three minutes--an epic by "ET" standards, where most stories run 90 seconds, tops. A dozen staff members have been working on the piece for almost a week. Now, only a few hours before air time, Van Messel decides an exchange between Stayner and the actor who plays him doesn't make sense. "You have to think too hard," Van Messel says of the present version.

Changes are ordered in other stories. Van Messel wants a reference to actress Geena Davis changed in a piece on Jeff Goldblum. In the current version, Davis, Goldblum's co-star in "Earth Girls Are Easy," is described as his off-screen partner. "He's married to Geena Davis, isn't he? Partner implies (the living arrangement of) Kurt Russell and Goldie Hawn."

Today's show will also include a breaking story, of sorts. Early every morning, "ET" staff members study the entertainment stories sent out by the wire services and read the industry news in a stack of papers, including the Los Angeles Times, the Herald Examiner, the New York Times, Daily Variety and the Hollywood Reporter. Van Messel and others also look over the East Coast gossip columns faxed out by "ET's" New York office.

This morning, a morality-in-media item in the New York Post has caught Van Messel's eye. The news staff is already checking it out. In the next few hours, "ET" will whip together a segment on the close scrutiny that fundamentalist Donald Wildmon plans to give "The Wonder Years" and other popular TV shows for evidence of sex, violence and anti-Christian stereotyping.

All day long, information flows into "ET" through its four segment producers--one each for movies, TV, music and publishing, the last based in New York. The segment producers are the ones who keep in touch with the publicists who control access to most celebrities.

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