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Providing an 'EXTRA' Dose of Hollywood : Television: Warner Bros. hopes to pattern its new show after 'Entertainment Tonight,' with variations, and tap into the MTV generation's thirst for celebrity news.

August 08, 1994|STEVE WEINSTEIN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

For 13 years it has sprinted along, dispensing tidbits of celebrity gossip and publicist-generated reports on "Arnold's latest blockbuster" or "Garth's new baby," letting the common folk in on the glamorous lives of stars they've come to "know" on a first-name basis. Along the way, "Entertainment Tonight" has earned millions for Paramount and spawned innumerable imitators.

Most of them--"USA Today on TV," "Public People, Private Lives," "Personalities," "Entertainment Daily Journal," to name a few, made hardly a whimper before disappearing.

Now comes a new challenger, backed by media giant Time Warner, that vows not to bury "E.T." but to praise it--and to serve, its backers hope, as a friendly companion.

"We're not 'E.T.'s' enemy," said David Nuell, a former executive producer of "Entertainment Tonight" who is now the boss at "EXTRA--The Entertainment Magazine," which Warner Bros. plans to launch Sept. 5. "People should be able to watch both."

In fact, Warner executives view everything except "Entertainment Tonight" as their competition.

"The game is money," said Dick Robertson, president of Warner Bros. Domestic Television Distribution. And the big money is in "access"--TV-speak for the 7-8 p.m. hour before prime time that lures the largest audiences for syndicated programming.

"Our whole sales pitch was based on how successful 'E.T.' has been," Robertson said. "Our competition (for those access time slots) is 'Hard Copy,' 'Inside Edition' and 'A Current Affair,' 'Wheel of Fortune' and 'Jeopardy!' There have been lots of successful tabloids and game shows, but no one has ever really tried to expand the most successful franchise ever in access. And we felt that created a real opportunity for us. We felt we could go to stations and say, 'Take off "Hard Copy," ' or some of the their other tabloids by showing them they could make more money with us."

The "Entertainment Tonight" camp is skeptical of such reasoning, noting that since "E.T." began covering the world of show business in 1981, similar coverage has proliferated on the morning talk shows, local news, CNN, MTV and other cable channels.

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"If we thought there was viewer demand for an 'E.T.' spinoff, we would have done it," said Steve Goldman, president of Paramount Domestic Television. "But the market is over-saturated with entertainment news, and anyone coming in now is going to have a real hard time. Unless the program is radically different and they can provide a service that we can't--and that is highly unlikely--viewers will stick with us."

Nevertheless, Robertson said the Warner Bros. strategy has worked fairly well. Stations in markets accounting for more than 50% of the audience across the country, including Los Angeles and New York, have agreed to schedule the show in the 7-8 p.m. hour, he said. In the rest of the nation--including eight of the 15 largest markets--"EXTRA" will run either in the less lucrative afternoon or late-night time periods (such as 1 a.m. in Chicago).

"Entertainment Tonight," by contrast, airs at either 7 or 7:30 p.m. in more than 90% of the country.

In a few cities, "EXTRA's" dream scenario was realized, and it will air on the same station as "E.T." in the half hour before or after it. In the majority of cities, however, "EXTRA" will air on a different station and in a different time period than "E.T."

Except here. The Los Angeles market is one of a few where the two shows will battle head to head. "Entertainment Tonight," which has been on KNBC-TV Channel 4 at 7 p.m., will move to KCBS-TV Channel 2 in the fall because KNBC declined to match Channel 2's expensive bid to win the show. Channel 4 instead decided to put "EXTRA" in "E.T.'s" place.

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Paramount's Goldman believes "E.T.'s" audience will follow it to Channel 2. "Viewers in L.A. know 'Entertainment Tonight' and what it stands for," he said. "When David Letterman went from Channel 4 to Channel 2, it didn't hurt his performance in this market."

Meanwhile, the people laboring to get "E.T." out every day--new episodes air daily throughout the summer--take exception to the notion that some sort of war is brewing with "EXTRA."

"I think it's really unfair to the 180 people we have working here at 'Entertainment Tonight' and the 13-year tradition of this program to ask what we are going to do about something that hasn't even been on the air," said Jim Van Messel, "E.T.'s" executive producer since 1987. "I don't want to throw darts at 'EXTRA' until I see what it is, but it's like Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney saying, 'Let's put on a show,' and you're rushing off to ask Daryl F. Zanuck what he plans to do about it. It's not real yet."

Van Messel said his program will not adjust to "EXTRA" either before or after it premieres, but will continue to "set its own agenda." As usual, Van Messel said, "E.T." will undergo a face lift this fall with new graphics, more reports from New York and a few other wrinkles that he declined to specify.

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