'ET' 25-year track record keeps marketers in tow

Celebrity news competition widespread but 'show gets you ready for next cocktail party'

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For the past 25 years, "Entertainment Tonight" has been a half-hour syndicated TV show, the leader in its field of lightning-quick snippets of celebrity news, movie premieres, awards shows and all things Hollywood.

But the producers behind "ET" say they can't simply think of it in those terms anymore. Rather, it has to be a 24-hour-a-day living, breathing brand that supplies entertainment news in various forms-be it broadband, wireless, radio or TV-to people who want it.

"The traditional thinking was we held all our information for each evening's show," says Terry Wood, president-creative affairs and development for "ET's" distributor, CBS Paramount Domestic Television. "We've had to shift our thinking because people are looking for information wherever they are, and if we break a story, it can't wait until the evening show."

Not that viewers aren't still drawn to the TV show. "ET" attracts more than 7 million viewers a night-topping by more than 2 million its nearest competitor, King World Productions' "Inside Edition." But at the same time, "ET" has continued to extend its brand, recently adding "ET to Go," short bites of entertainment news for wireless platforms.

That content is in addition to the syndicated radio minutes, the younger-skewing "ET on MTV," an ongoing relationship with Yahoo and a spinoff syndicated show, "The Insider." The pieces work together, Ms. Wood says, allowing the show to break news on the Web at et.tv.yahoo.com, for instance, and then carry it through to every other "ET"-branded medium.

"It's all designed to create buzz that carries over into the evening," Ms. Wood says. "It all points back to the flagship."

That core product has continued to be a valuable enterprise, pulling in about $150,000 for a 30-second spot.

Marketers, which often gravitate to the ratings leaders, have stepped up their activity with "Entertainment Tonight" in recent months. An ongoing partnership with Unilever has created Caress-themed segments and contests on the show. A deal between Masterfoods and Viacom Plus, the cross-divisional selling unit, has put the M&M's spokes-candies on "ET" in animated form, most recently on the red carpet during awards season.

The show has proved to be desirable real estate for a variety of brands.

Matt Meyerson, senior VP-product placement for Hollywood publicity shop BWR, has had a working relationship with "ET" for the past few years. He outfits some of the on-air talent with his fashion clients, brands like Rebel Yell, Geoff Thomas jewelry and Kasil jeans, which receive "promotional consideration" tags at the end of the show.

"ET" also covers some of the events he organizes, such as new-product launches in clothing and jewelry that draw a star-heavy crowd.

"Their coverage is critical," Mr. Meyerson says. "If I can get them to an event, I'll usually offer them an exclusive. It's more valuable because it's the No. 1 show in that space. Their coverage is better, and they're constantly looking for new and fresh ideas."

The coverage has value beyond the half-hour syndicated show, Mr. Meyerson says, because the exposure for his marketers' brands could spill over to other "ET" venues like "ET on MTV" and the Web site.

culture central

In addition to being a solid marketing vehicle, the show has taken a long-term place in the popular culture.

"Nobody would call it 'Masterpiece Theatre,' " says Bob Thompson, professor at Syracuse University and head of the school's Center for the Study of Popular Television. "It's the 'CliffsNotes,' Reader's Digest version of entertainment news. It's user-friendly, and it does what it does very effectively."

Because today's audiences are so fragmented-watching niche programs, listening to customized playlists on iPods-shared entertainment experiences are few and far between. Having a show like "ET" provides a bit of a unifying force, Mr. Thompson says.

"It's part of a cultural currency where you feel like you're not in the know unless you've seen a show like this," he says. "It gets you ready for your next cocktail party."

Producers say they've seen a shift over time in the environment, with a plethora of competitors on- and off-air, and a difference in how Hollywood wants to be covered.

In "ET's" earlier days, celebrities weren't so shielded by publicists, lawyers, agents and managers. The show's producers and on-air talent have had to learn to work with the added layers of bureaucracy. While they're aware of the keen competition, they say they can't pull the trigger too quickly on stories.

"We don't rush to report a story we don't feel is ready," says Linda Bell Blue, executive producer of "ET" for the last 11 years. "We're all from news backgrounds here, and we apply those rules."

If there's a controversial story, such as an arrest, "it's a reality we can't ignore," Ms. Bell Blue says. In those cases, they use their relationships to get to the stars and their handlers to snare the first on-camera story. "Some people face up to it, and others won't," she says. "It's still news, and we'll cover it."
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