"Entertainment Tonight" reports on the ratings of other TV programs but not on its own. The syndicated Paramount TV production is having such a tough time these days that it's almost enough to wipe the perpetual smile off the faces of cohosts Mary Hart and Robb Weller. The nightly show-biz report recently suffered a potentially mortal blow when the New York station that has been airing it, WABC-TV, announced it would drop "ET" in September.
WABC will air a revived version of "Hollywood Squares" instead. In addition to this discouraging sign, "Entertainment Tonight" will soon be dropped from the VHF station that carries it in Chicago and put back on a UHF station there with a smaller viewership.
How are the folks at "ET" reacting to these threats? One could say with hysterical panic, at least on the basis of how they responded to a friendly casual inquiry about the welfare of the show last week. One or two little phone calls and they went bananas.
Tales of reporters getting stiffed in the pursuit of a story are not very interesting unless they're on "60 Minutes" and you can actually see the door slamming in the reporter's face. But it struck this reporter as odd that an outfit like "ET," whose stock in trade is reporting on the entertainment industry, should turn tail and hide when someone tries to report about it.
"Entertainment Tonight" is a slick and handsome nightly half-hour sent by satellite to dozens of TV stations around the country, many of whom air it in so-called "access" time, during the hour before network prime time begins. Stations are required by FCC rule to program something other than recent network hand-me-downs in the time slot. When the rule was passed, it was thought it would encourage innovative programming. Instead, it resulted in a game show glut. "Entertainment Tonight's" big ratings foe is "Wheel of Fortune."
My first call to "ET" was to a producer I know there, who got very nervous that she might be quoted on the state of "ET's" health. It's a touchy subject because Paramount recently bombed big with another daily syndicated show, "America," a $26 million flop starring the intensely personable Sarah Purcell. At "ET," they fear the failure of "America" will spill over on them.
The "ET" producer referred me to a Paramount vice president. The Paramount vice president was in a meeting when I called; the meeting apparently lasted four days because I never got a call back. However, a woman from a public relations outfit retained by "ET" did call me later and offered to set up an interview with yet another Paramount executive. I said fine but never heard from the PR woman again. I think she's in a meeting.
Finally I called Jack Reilly, executive producer of the show. He was not in. His call was returned by a woman on the staff. Whenever I called her back, she wasn't in. Finally, one does begin to lose interest. After all, "ET" losing ratings points doesn't quite rank up there in the pantheon of great news stories with Watergate, the von Bu low trial, or Sean Penn and Madonna walking across the street together.
Are "ET's" days numbered? In New York, Bill Fyffe, general manager of WABC, says "ET" has been canceled there because it ranked fourth in its time slot, behind "Wheel of Fortune," "The New Newlywed Game," and reruns of "M*A*S*H." Fyffe says he likes the show, but not enough of his viewers do.
"The program has gotten softer in the ratings in the past year," Fyffe says, "and is no longer competitive in this market." Asked if his decision to drop "ET" had anything to do with the fact that Rona Barrett, the dauntless blab, had fairly recently been added to the cast, Fyffe pauses. "Hmmmmm," he says. "No, not really. Rona did not have a part. Personally, I felt they were misusing her on the show, but that didn't affect our decision."
Barrett resurfaced last year and signed on at "ET," and as a weekly contributor to the now defunct "America," for a reported salary of $10,000 per week. She has good sources and has reported some scoops, but mostly she rattles on about changes in the executive suites at the major studios, something not even many show-biz buffs care about. Others on the "ET" payroll reportedly resent Barrett's hogging of stories and are mortified by her Kewpie-doll delivery on the air. There are reports that Barrett's contract has recently been renegotiated but again no one at "ET" could be reached for comment.
Whatever the reason, "ET" is suffering in several cities. In Chicago, one of the most important TV markets in the country, "ET" is being dropped by WMAQ, the NBC-owned station there, and being sent back to the UHF station, WFLD, that formerly played it. WMAQ is switching to "The Newlywed Game." In Washington, "ET" is holding steady in its time slot -- steady in a distant third place.
Even though they spurned me, even though they behaved childishly, even though I missed another chance to propose to my beloved Mary Hart, I remain a steadfast fan of "ET," Rona and all. The show is bright and zippy, and unlike the game shows, which are taped weeks in advance, "ET" is fresh each day from L.A. Maybe it's half an hour of trivial fluff, but it's hardly the only TV show guilty of that.
"ET" has even been flattered with a blatant imitation, the cheesy and tacky "Showbiz Today" on the Cable News Network. Maybe that's part of "ET's" problem; it made entertainment news so marketable that it's now featured on regular local newscasts all over the country. The airwaves are awash with tattle about the stars. "Entertainment Tonight" may the first victim of its own success.