The accusations and antics last week surrounding the coverage of Anna Nicole Smith’s recent death were nearly as dramatic as the custody battles over the celebrity’s body and infant daughter.
Since Ms. Smith’s unexpected death Feb. 8, competitors in the television magazine business started buzzing behind the scenes about how other shows got their flurries of “Anna” stories.
Among the accusations: Studios paid seven-figure sums to the former model and E! reality show star and her lawyer-boyfriend Howard K. Stern for rights to interviews and to her funeral. The chatter climaxed last week with an allegation that at least one syndicated newsmagazine was practicing checkbook journalism.
Regardless of how the shows got their stories, the coverage goosed the ratings. Viewership for syndicated newsmagazines that covered Ms. Smith’s death rose to new highs for the week ended Feb. 11, which includes the first full week of the sweeps. Whether the viewership boost winds up being worth the cost of getting the stories remains to be seen. Every show covering the story certainly ramped up resources to do so, whether those expenditures were made ethically or not.
Reports of sources being paid for stories about Ms. Smith had an immediate trickle-down effect that is not good news, “Access Hollywood” executive producer Rob Silverstein said.
“Everybody has their hand out because of this,” he said. “It’s really brought out the worst in people and producers. We’re now seeing a revival of the [former tabloid shows] ‘Hard Copy,’ and ‘Current Affairs’ mentality taking over at some shows.
“We’ve seen our ratings go through the roof because of this,” he added, “but it’s because of good reporting, not because we are handing out money. Look at how well Tony Potts has done in covering the case. That’s all hustle and that’s terrific journalism.”
By many accounts, getting the story of Ms. Smith’s death and its aftermath on the air wasn’t easy for any show. On the upside, though, completing the task reminded the people who make these shows what they’re capable of doing.
Ms. Smith was pronounced dead at approximately 2:49 p.m. EST, not far from the time most syndicated newsmagazines send their daily feed to station affiliates. As a result, all five of the newsmagazines in syndication — “Entertainment Tonight,” “Inside Edition,” “Access Hollywood,” “The Insider” and “Extra” — were forced to recut, repackage and send as many as four feeds in only a few hours, updating both stations and viewers with the latest information related to her demise.
“Those are the days when we are reminded that you could take us out of syndication and put us into network news and we would all do fine,” said Deborah Norville, anchor of “Inside Edition.” “We were able to get our fingertips on very specific bits of tape at a moment’s notice and slammed a show together that was rocking — and that was even before the press conferences were happening. Those guys who handle our digital library are the unsung heroes in all of this. Without them, there wouldn’t have been much of a show.”
“We’ve been doing around three feeds a day since this broke,” said Lisa Gregorisch-Dempsey, executive producer of “Extra.” “With all the breaking news, it reminds me a little bit [of] when I was back in local news and had five different shows and five different deadlines. Fortunately, our crew has been doing this their entire careers and was prepared to take it on.”
Foremost in the spotlight of Anna coverage has been “Entertainment Tonight,” which secured the final interviews with Ms. Smith following the death of her son Daniel.
Clips of those interviews were used in last week’s hearing on the custody of Ms. Smith’s body as evidence of her final wishes and state of mind near the end of her life.
As a result of having that footage, producers of the show said they were flooded with calls requesting clips of the interviews. They sent “ET” co-anchor Mark Steines to outlets such as CNN and “Good Morning America” armed with clips to discuss on-air.
“We conducted the last interview that was ever done with her in January. It was a very sad day, on the porch of her house in Nassau, and a tough interview to do,” said Linda Bell Blue, executive producer of “Entertainment Tonight” and “The Insider.”
“She was desperately depressed on the death of her son, and the paternity battles had taken a toll on her. Needless to say, her death came as an incredible shock to us, but we set about doing the reporting that we needed to do.”
Those interviews and relationships, however, quickly caused controversy both inside and outside of the courtroom. Inside, Mr. Stern told the court in the Anna Nicole Smith case that he was flown from Florida to the Bahamas by “Entertainment Tonight” just after the death of Ms. Smith, and that he gave them interviews during that flight and afterward. He said neither his travel expenses on the trip to testify, nor his legal representation, had been paid for by “ET.”
Mr. Stern later was accused by Ms. Smith’s mother of selling broadcast rights for her daughter’s funeral to “Entertainment Tonight” for $1 million. That’s the same amount “ET” was alleged to have paid Ms. Smith for her interviews.
As a result, one source who requested anonymity bemoaned the show’s tactics as “checkbook journalism.” Paying for sources is not a practice considered ethical or fair under the general reporting rules of engagement.
Ms. Bell Blue scoffed at the suggestions.
“We did not pay $1 million. In no way did we pay for an interview,” she said. “We have paid to license clips and pictures from Anna over the years for air, but that is something we have to do as a news agency. I have to license rights in order to run certain images on the airwaves.”
After accusations of “ET” paying for a funeral surfaced in the courtroom, an “ET” representative said that at this time, “There is no agreement that ‘ET’ would cover the funeral.”