10 Years of ‘Access’: From Modest Start, ‘Access’ Took Flight

Nov 7, 2005  •  Post A Comment

By Lee Alan Hill

Special to TelevisionWeek

Today it’s what Barry Wallach, president of NBC Universal Domestic TV Distribution, calls “our first-run centerpiece,” but as a series, “Access Hollywood” began far less auspiciously.

Its name-“Access Hollywood”-speaks to its conception as an entertainment news program that would be the backbone of the prime access time period for the NBC stations. And while it has succeeded over its decade in that role, it has gone through more than its share of distribution changes, due mainly to corporate conglomeration.

The long-lived series has been a first-run offering of New World, Fox, Warner Bros., NBC Enterprises and now NBC Universal Domestic TV Distribution.

In late 1994 NBC, which among the broadcast networks was the slowest to get back in the domestic distribution game after the Federal Communications Commission changed the financial interest rules in 1992, was looking for a show that could play on its owned-and-operated as well as affiliated stations and capitalize on the growing consumer interest in show business.

At the same time, New World was a company that had grown from being a producer and distributor of mostly B-movies into a viable TV and film enterprise. Owned by industrialist-entrepreneur Ron Perelman, it was headed by Brandon Tartikoff, who was president of NBC’s entertainment division during its rise from also-ran to first in prime-time ratings in the 1980s.

Mr. Wallach was at New World himself at the time, and he recalls that when John Rohrback, then president of the NBC Station Division, was looking for a company through which to distribute what would become “Access Hollywood,” Mr. Tartikoff’s presence at New World made it a good fit.

“There were not a lot of sources for entertainment news then,” Mr. Wallach said. “‘Entertainment Tonight’ was on, of course, and the E! was around, though in its own flux. Research showed there was a viewership for such a program, and one that the desirable 18- to 49-year-old women would watch.”

“Also remember,” he added, “that not only did NBC have stations but some of these were owned by Ron Perelman and New World. So it was not just a good fit, it was a common cause.”

New World began selling the show in the fall of 1995, and “Access Hollywood” made its debut on Sept. 9, 1996, with Giselle Fernandez and Larry Mendte as co-hosts and a former news reporter and anchor from South Carolina named Nancy O’Dell as weekend co-anchor.

Jim Van Messell was the executive producer during the inaugural year.

“I was the only reporter then,” Ms. O’Dell said. “I remember we had to fight for interviews with the celebrities because we were an unknown entity. Now we have celebrities coming to us. I think what set us apart and how we were able to make that turnaround in perception happen is that from the beginning we established that we were not out to trick celebrities or anyone else. I think the PR people picked up on that pretty soon after we premiered.”

From the beginning there was a mantra, said current executive producer Rob Silverstein, who was a producer of the show back in 1996.

“‘Access Hollywood’ is the ‘SportsCenter’ of entertainment news,” Mr. Silverstein said. “We were then, as we do now, going to cover TV, film and music. That’s it. No straying from those areas. No tabloid stories, which were very prevalent back when we started. We were going to concentrate on those three areas and cover them better and more completely than anyone.” The sports reference from Mr. Silverstein is no surprise: He was for years an executive with CBS Sports.

In 1997, just as the show was beginning to find its footing, Mr. Perelman sold New World to 20th Century Fox. Suddenly, the impression that “Access Hollywood” was “the right fit” no longer applied.

“Fox also got New World’s stations in the deal,” recalled Mr. Wallach. “But Fox was not news-oriented. Strategically their stations were geared for off-network sitcoms. That’s what their distribution division wanted to sell, not an entertainment news show.”

NBCU Takes Over

After about two years Fox sold the rights to “Access Hollywood” to Warner Bros. Domestic TV Distribution, which handled the show until 2001. At that point, NBC had energized its in-house syndication unit, NBC Enterprises, and taken over distribution. After last year’s merger with Universal, the resultant NBC Universal Domestic Distribution arm now handles “Access Hollywood.”

The anchors and celebrities have changed, though Mr. Wallach said, “I think the biggest change has not been in the content or the philosophy of the show but rather in the technology, because you can do much more.” With today’s production advances, breaking stories can be plugged in well past what would have been the deadline in years past.

Today the show is on 200 stations, including all of the NBC O&Os, and in about 97 percent of the country. Mr. Wallach noted that the show is in prime access in almost 60 percent of those markets, frequently paired with “Extra,” which is distributed by Warner Bros. In the remaining 40 percent of the country “Access Hollywood” is in early fringe or late fringe, with a few stations airing the show in daytime.

“After a decade we’re established as part of the identity of our stations,” he said. “We’re part of the community. There are not a lot of new shows launched in prime access, and it can be hand-to-hand combat in that time period among the shows that are there, even long term.”

“But in the long term,” Mr. Wallach added, “we feel we’ll be able to grow to being up to 70 percent in prime access.”

Internationally, however, “Access Hollywood” has never really had a foothold.

For two seasons Flextech’s Living TV did a weekly half-hour version in the United Kingdom with host Tim Vincent, who’s now one of the New York-based correspondents for the show. Currently, there is no foreign outlet.

“It’s quick-paced and it’s of the moment,” Frederick Huntsberry, executive VP of NBC Universal TV Distribution, said of “Access.” “It’s difficult to dub it and do that with the rapidity necessary to get it on the air and be current. Segments such as interviews can be sold and packaged, but that’s really the only market.”

Mr. Huntsberry noted that NBC Universal can sell the concept and is currently developing a pilot with Fact Based Communications in the United Kingdom for a series that would be based either in London or India and focus on the huge film industry and celebrity in the Indian subcontinent.

Like its American counterpart, the title of the proposed show would be easily recognizable: “Access Bollywood.”