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'E.T'? That's showbiz

TV's venerable entertainment newsmagazine prepares to toast itself at tonight's Emmy party.

September 21, 2003|Gina Piccalo | Times Staff Writer

Steven COJOCARU flirted with the Bangles, flashing his 10-million-watt smile and bragging about the highlights in his hair. (The best in Los Angeles County, he said.) Surrounded by a small film crew at the SkyBar on Tuesday afternoon, "Entertainment Tonight's" newest star quizzed the band on its scheduled performance at "E.T.'s" big Emmy party. "Any chance you might skinny dip?" he asked, nodding toward the bar's sun-drenched pool and tanned hardbodies. "Will you promise me one of you will wear a tube top?"

Cojocaru's bubbly segment was one in a series that aired this week to create buzz around the event, co-sponsored by Glamour magazine and pitched as the Emmy-night answer to Vanity Fair's annual Oscar party. (Oprah attended the event last year, a sure sign, show publicists say, that the bash has been elevated to superstar status.) It's true that this year's guest list -- including Jennifer Aniston, Sarah Jessica Parker, James Gandolfini and John Malkovich -- proves the show's relationships with high-powered agents and publicists are paying off. It's a good thing too, because the party planners are counting on enough star power to generate several hours of footage to stream tonight on Yahoo.com and then compose much of Monday's edition of the syndicated show.

"Only a show like this could pull off a party like this," said "E.T." executive vice president of programming Terry Wood.

Such bold proclamations are typical of the show that hooked America on celebrity minutia back when few believed TV audiences would tune in for an entire half-hour of Hollywood dish. This was in 1980, when a Barbara Walters "get" was most likely a head of state, Larry King was still on the radio and Oprah Winfrey was well-known only in Baltimore. In fact, the format was so foreign to network affiliates that for two years, host Mary Hart spent her weekends flying cross-country to pitch the show to local station owners.

By the mid-'80s, Hart and co-host John Tesh had developed a following. The show's on-location segments, set visits, movie previews and access to Hollywood's hottest talent "created a vocabulary and a way to watch entertainment news," Wood said. It also spawned a series of imitators, but few survived until the mid-'90s, when NBC launched "Extra" and the syndicated "Access Hollywood." Today, competition has grown so fierce that entertainment news shows often go head to head with star interviews on traditional news programs such as "Dateline NBC," "Primetime," "20/20," even "60 Minutes."

"It's kind of at its zenith right now in terms of everybody trying to jump into the space," said E! Networks chief operating officer Ken Bettsteller, whose company broadcasts a 24-hour entertainment news channel.

"The words that come to mind," said Cojocaru, "are 'feeding frenzy.' "

Consequently, two of the more dominant celebrity news programs -- "E.T." and "Access Hollywood" -- are locked in battle, with the former committed to remaining (according to press materials) the "number one entertainment news magazine in the world." At times, says "Access" executive producer Rob Silverstein, the sparring has reached the red carpet, where crews from both shows stand shoulder to shoulder awaiting celebrities.

"There's been nasty words," he said. "There's been incidents."

"Access" and "Extra" both report that their ratings in New York and Los Angeles consistently beat "E.T." Nationally, however, "E.T." soundly beats both shows, pulling in more than double their ratings.

Still, Wood says "Entertainment Tonight" has managed to re-create itself every season for two decades and continues to stay current. "You don't get to the 23rd season without looking at the future and very carefully studying it," she said.

Recently, the show has targeted a younger demographic with shorter segments edited in what one staffer described as "more of an MTV-like style." In fact, last year MTV and VH1 began airing abbreviated versions of "E.T." And the show's correspondents are getting younger and hipper. Hence Cojocaru, Latin singer Carlos Ponce and Maria Menounos, who was hired right out of college.

Ultimately, entertainment news producers say, the intense competition makes for better shows. And if Cojocaru is accurate when he says "showbiz has become the national pastime," there's room for more.

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