10 Years of ‘Access’: Selling the Steak, Not Just the Sizzle

Nov 7, 2005  •  Post A Comment

By Lee Alan Hill

Special to Television Week

The look of a show matters, to be sure, but “Access Hollywood” executive producer Rob Silverstein asserts that his show builds its audience and wins fans within the Hollywood community with its growing record of exclusive stories and its policy of eschewing a tabloid approach to those stories.

“We do stories on TV, film and music, that’s all,” Mr. Silverstein said. “And we approach what we do as if we were the ‘SportsCenter’ of entertainment. We report the news and the stories. We let others do the sensationalism. And we’re confident our approach has led to building trust with celebrities and the publicists who handle them.”

“You do the stories that are interesting,” echoed weekend anchor Tony Potts. “That’s what captures the viewers, not graphics. It’s the moments that matter, and Rob has a sports mentality. With athletes, if you tell the truth, whatever it is, they speak to you the next day. If you don’t, they don’t.”

Mr. Silverstein was quick to note that the show will not cover stories that do not have a connection to film, TV or music, no matter how sensational.

“We’re not interested in O.J. Simpson today,” he said. “We were not on during his trial 10 years ago, so I don’t know what we would have done then-he was also an actor. But we did not cover Kobe Bryant, because that’s sports, while other entertainment sources give celebrity scandals of whatever ilk to their audiences in the same breath they cover Hollywood.”

Instead, “Access Hollywood” has been compiling a long list of exclusive stories that have brought the show attention on other TV programs and in other media, while raising its profile.

Among the key stories that no one else had during the past few seasons was Tom Cruise’s taking Billy Bush on a first-ever tour inside the Scientology media center in Los Angeles last May. During the course of the interview Mr. Cruise commented about Brooke Shields’ use of medication for postpartum depression, which triggered angry remarks from Ms. Shields that were later referenced by Matt Lauer during his interview with Mr. Cruise on “Today.”

Mr. Bush also was the first to interview Jennifer Aniston after her split with Brad Pitt was disclosed. This was before her much-covered appearance on “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” where Ms. Aniston spoke about the breakup.

High-Profile Exclusives

The show has since had other exclusives with Ms. Aniston and also “the other woman”-Angelina Jolie. In fact, “Access Hollywood” has a history of exclusives surrounding Ms. Jolie. Back in August 2002 her estranged father, Academy Award-winning actor Jon Voight, gave “Access” an exclusive on-air plea for his daughter’s forgiveness.

“Access” broke the story that Jennifer Lopez and Ben Affleck had called off their much-ballyhooed nuptials. “Access” not only interviewed Halle Berry and her then husband Eric Benet about problems in their marriage, this spring it brought Mr. Benet back to discuss a song he wrote as an apology to Ms. Berry.

“We’re getting these stories because the Hollywood community knows we treat them fairly,” Mr. Silverstein said. “Sure, we want the story first, and sure, candor from the celebrities sells the story. But I think our ‘no tabloid’ approach makes the celebrities realize they can trust us, and they can trust the hosts and correspondents who interview them.”

“I don’t know what ‘no tabloid’ really means,” said Jo-Ann Geffen, who said she has had nothing but good experiences with “Access Hollywood” when the celebrity clientele handled by her public relations firm JAG PR is involved.

“Let’s face it, even the 11 o’clock evening news can be called ‘tabloid,'” Ms. Geffen said. “It’s the nature of the beast right now.”

However, Ms. Geffen is quick to not just praise “Access Hollywood” but also expand upon the level of trust she has built with the show.

“In PR you can only have as much respect for the people you’re dealing with as they have respect for you and your clients,” she said. “‘Access Hollywood’ has not only never been anything but honorable with me, I can cite time and time again when they have gone beyond where they had to go to be fair. I know when dealing with them that sure, they want the story, and sure, they will go with the story, but they’ll also be checking out all possible sources.

“It’s the responsibility of the publicist to be ‘in charge’ of the story, not the other way around,” Ms. Geffen added. “I need to know that the story will be handled with accuracy, that my clients will not be corralled. ‘Access Hollywood’ has built that level of confidence with me, and I know I’m not alone.”

Mr. Silverstein acknowledged that as a show owned by NBC Universal, “Access Hollywood” is aided in its quest for exclusives. While it is not part of the NBC News division, the ownership gives it a working relationship with such programs as “Today” and “Dateline.”

So perhaps it was not surprising that Mr. Lauer used “Access Hollywood’s” exclusive tour of Scientology’s media center and Mr. Cruise’s remarks about Ms. Shields when he created his own stir a month later by asking Mr. Cruise about both Scientology and his comments about Ms. Shields on “Today.”

“It’s not an automatic thing,” Mr. Silverstein said. “I’ll check with ‘Today’ and ‘Dateline’ and ask if they are interested in something we want to do. If they say yes, then I can use that as a selling point to get an exclusive.”

The synergy was made clearer by the hiring this fall of Maria Menounos, who will be both a special correspondent for “Access Hollywood” and a West Coast contributor to “Today.”

“We are under NBC News guidelines,” he noted. “We never pay for our stories or sources. We never give the questions to the subjects in advance.

“The bottom line is that we are not going to be ‘stalkerazzi,'” Mr. Silverstein said. “You look at other shows and they’re following Brad Pitt around with cameras wherever he goes. We don’t do that, and the effect is that the stars will come to speak to us because they know we’re treating them with respect.”

Mr. Silverstein believes, for example, that the series “got our coverage of Eddie Murphy splitting with his wife because when he was arrested several years ago [an incident in which Mr. Murphy gave a ride to a transvestite prostitute] we didn’t turn that into tabloid fare.”

“We’re a news show,” he insisted, “an entertainment news show. It’s our job to make the audience interested in entertainment news. We do it with a wink and a smile, sure. This is not usually serious stuff. But what you won’t see us do is promo some big story we can’t deliver. The audience reacts negatively to that. I call it ‘antissappointment.’ We’re pledged that they won’t get that from us.”