When the news broke that troubled diva Whitney Houston had suddenly passed away on the eve of the Grammy Awards, most producers of syndicated entertainment magazines were doing what many other folks were: enjoying their weekends. But the difference between producers and viewers is that as viewers let the shock of the news run through them before moving on to whatever else they were doing, producers snapped into action, and kept on running.
What separated the Houston story from other high-profile celebrity deaths, such as those of Michael Jackson, Anna Nicole Smith or Heath Ledger, is that it happened right before a major Hollywood event, when celebs and media were all gathered at one place: the Beverly Hilton, where music mogul Clive Davis was preparing to hold his annual pre-Grammys party. Houston died in her Hilton room Feb. 12 as she was getting ready to attend that party.
“It’s like something from a movie. You couldn’t write that script,” says Charles Lachman, executive producer of CBS Television Distribution’s Inside Edition, who immediately dispatched a team of 10 people to Los Angeles from New York upon hearing the Houston news and kept them there all last week. “For her to die on the night before the Grammys and on the day of this party with which she’s become so identified, it is all just quite dramatic.”
Several of the newsmagazine shows were already at the Beverly Hilton, preparing to attend and cover the party.
“We heard it probably faster than anyone else,” says Lisa Gregorisch Dempsey, Extra senior executive producer. “[Correspondent] AJ Calloway was at the hotel. AJ is from New Jersey, he lived near Whitney and he knows the family and all of her circle.”
“Shawn Robinson already was doing red carpet at that party and was already inside at a great table,” says Rob Silverstein, executive producer of Access Hollywood. “She was emailing information to me and other producers all night, and shooting interviews and getting reactions from everyone at the hotel. From a logistical standpoint, this was easier than most situations like this, because everyone was already there.”
TMZ chief Harvey Levin also says his staff had significant information before the news officially broke, but all of the newsmagazines—yes, even hard-driving TMZ—were playing things very close to the vest in light of recent inaccurate Web reports, such as the premature news that Penn State football coach Joe Paterno had died hours before he actually passed away.
“You don’t do a story saying Whitney Houston is dead unless you are 100%,” says Levin. “We got multiple tips before it ever came out, but her reps were saying it wasn’t true. Someone in the family ended up releasing a statement to the wires.”
The news first broke on Twitter—of course—but was officially confirmed by the Associated Press with a statement from Houston’s publicist. After that, the magazines all kicked into high gear.
Shows like Access Hollywood and Extra hope to distinguish their coverage through the relationships their hosts and correspondents have with Houston’s family and friends. All of the newsmags had interviewed a sober-seeming Houston at a junket in Detroit last November to promote her new movie, Sparkle, which is scheduled to be released in August.
In their attempts to round out the story, Entertainment Tonight and The Insider turned to their giant vault of video, releasing old Houston interviews on their Websites and repacking them for broadcast. TMZ focused its efforts on its site, which continued to be a never-ending font of breaking news on the story, with every tiny detail—Houston’s body was flown back to New Jersey in Tyler Perry’s jet, Houston was to be buried next to her father in Westfield, N.J.—presenting an opportunity for a scoop.
And you can’t say TMZ doesn’t work for it: “On the first night after [Houston] died, we were working on stories until 4 a.m. and then back again on Sunday,” says Levin. “There were a lot of people involved in this who really didn’t sleep that night.”
All of the magazine shows aggressively covered the story of Houston’s death throughout last week, and will keep covering it as long as audience interest runs high. “You know pretty quickly when people have had enough,” says Lachman. “But right now they are telling us that they haven’t had enough, they want more. It’s all about knowing when to pull back, and when to hit the gas.”
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