Linda Bell Blue Keeps It Newsy

Nov 28, 2005  •  Post A Comment

When veteran news executive Linda Bell Blue took the helm of “Entertainment Tonight” 11 years ago as executive producer, the syndicated half-hour show was shipped off on satellite early each afternoon and that was it until the next day.

These days the show ships its first version a little bit earlier, but it is not unusual for the producers to do updates throughout the day. For instance, when Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston announced late on a Friday afternoon they would divorce, Ms. Blue and her key editors returned to the office and worked past midnight updating the weekend show, the Web site and even the promos for Monday morning.

For Ms. Blue, staying on top of the news, having a clear focus on what makes the show work and offering lots of exclusive content tailored to the mostly female audience is what has kept “ET” the highest-rated entertainment magazine show on television, even in the face of ever greater competition on broadcast, cable and online.

“The big test for us every day is holding the lead-in and then holding the audience through the second quarter-hour,” Ms. Blue said. “I walk in here every day and ask, ‘What are we going to do to get the audience engaged right out of the gate? How are we going to hold them until the end?”

On the day Prince Charles and his new wife, Camilla, came to New York for their first U.S. visit as a couple, their arrival was scheduled for less than a half-hour before the show was to ship, recalled Brad Bessey, co-executive producer of “ET”

“[Ms. Blue] more than anything wanted that to be in the show,” recalled Mr. Bessey. “I remember getting e-mails from some of the most powerful publicists asking, ‘How in God’s name did you do this? It’s just happening as we speak.’ But it was her deciding we were going to do this. That’s what it took to make the impossible happen. Her passion and enthusiasm made everyone else jump on board.”

“ET” under Ms. Blue has spawned a mini-empire, all of which is as news-driven as the flagship show. There are weekend versions, an active online presence and a daily syndicated radio segment that includes breaking news updates as they happen. There are spin-off versions on MTV, in Canada and in the United Kingdom. And there is a companion half-hour, “The Insider,” which went on the air about a year and a half ago and has emerged as one of the rare success stories in syndication.

In a few weeks Paramount will announce a deal for “ET” to offer video-on-demand segments, and other deals are in the works to extend the online and on-demand presence.

“What Linda has brought to this show that it desperately needed was more of a competitive nature,” said Bruce MacCallum, senior producer on “ET” “It isn’t enough to just get interviews with stars. Now we are competitive on what stars are doing. She has brought a sense of journalism and a real competitive spirit.”

“The single most important thing about the show today is that we are up to the minute with all the news we do,” said Mary Hart, who has anchored “ET” for almost 24 years.

Ms. Blue has kept the shows on the edge of the news while remaining quite conservative when it comes to sourcing stories. “I don’t think ‘Entertainment Tonight’ can ever afford to be wrong,” she said last week. “If it means we’re not first on a story, then we won’t be first. We make sure it is right. I think the competition, with the momentum to be first, sometimes makes mistakes. It’s not worth it to the reputation of the TV show. So it doesn’t happen.”

To get the news, be accurate and do it all at an around-the-clock, break-neck pace, “ET” today has about 250 editorial employees, many of whom have been with the show for many years, from on-air talents like film historian Leonard Maltin to the people who track the tapes and put content up on satellite.

When Ms. Blue arrived, everyone sat in offices or cubicles. These days all the key staff from both shows can be found in a big, open central newsroom where they can share stories and ideas.

“It’s tough for one show’s staff to get along,” said D.J. Petroro, senior producer of “The Insider.” “I’ve worked at shows where there are different camps. [Ms. Blue] has two totally separate staffs working together and getting along.”

Ms. Blue faced one of her most difficult challenges earlier this year when her friend and colleague Pat O’Brien, co-anchor of “The Insider,” was caught up in an ugly scandal that was in large part a result of his abuse of alcohol and other drugs.

On the day the story broke, Ms. Blue and key members of her staff went to Mr. O’Brien’s home and did an intervention. By that afternoon he was enrolled in a rehab program. When he returned, he apologized to the world. “I had a problem and I dealt with it like a man,” Mr. O’Brien said.

“I had never dealt with anything like that before as a manager or as a friend,” Ms. Blue recalled. “He is in so much better shape now. He is a leader on the staff. … He has been sober for eight months now, and I couldn’t be more proud of him.”

“She kept the train on the tracks,” Mr. O’Brien added. “Obviously, it was a bump. … No one was going to give up. I wasn’t going to give up. There was a lot at stake.”

Ms. Blue manages both to be a hands-on manager and to empower her staff. She may not be universally loved by competitors, publicists or even stars, but she has a fiercely loyal staff and an unparalleled record of success as the longest-serving top producer in the history of “ET,” which is celebrating its 25th anniversary on the air.

She not only knows her audience she remains one of them. “I’m from the Midwest, and I’ve worked all over the country in news,” Ms. Blue said. “I think I have a pretty good idea of what people want to see, or what women want to see, and what is acceptable to them. It doesn’t sway me what others are doing. I have to do what I think is right.”