Entertainment Mags Look for a Comeback

Why This Matters: Once the font of celebrity news, entertainment magazines are struggling to fit into a world they originated.

It was the viral video literally seen ’round the world.

When The Washington Post posted a behind-the-scenes video of Access Hollywood host Billy Bush chatting with then-Apprentice star Donald J. Trump, headlines exploded all over the globe that then-Republican presidential candidate Trump made sexually inappropriate comments toward women, including Bush’s then co-host Nancy O’Dell, while Bush laughed and egged him on.

As the world knows now, Bush was fired from his new job at NBC’s Today while Trump went on to become president. No one ever said justice was part of politics or Hollywood.

But while Trump won the White House, Bush found himself on a forced three-year time out. Now, thanks to the belief of Extra senior executive producer Lisa Gregorisch-Dempsey (known widely as Lisa G), Bush is emerging from his forced early retirement as the new host of Warner Bros.’s veteran entertainment magazine.

He’s definitely humbler for the experience.

“I came back from this reckoning in my life with a real kind of appreciation,” Bush said. “I find myself happier at work and I’m a better person to work with. I feel like the old bull who has been there — I’ve seen some things and I know what it’s like to be all the way down, so you treat people and approach your work differently because of that.”

While Bush looked for his next gig, he did some thinking.

“Everyone in this business has said to me that it would just take time,” Bush said. “I didn’t murder anyone. I didn’t hurt anyone. It was just not a great moment. I didn’t like seeing myself in that moment, either. But it was a moment that took place in 2005, 11 years before I was fired. This was about Donald Trump and not me.”

That said, Bush still had to pay a hefty price for his casual backstage actions. “We are knee-deep in cancel culture right now,” he said. “You should be able to get up. I owned up to everything. Does the fact that this happened mean I should never be able to work again? If you can’t get up from that and come back and work and provide for your family, then we are really living in scary times.

“I’m glad to be back. I’m grateful to be back. And I’m a different person, to be sure.”

For her part, Gregorisch-Dempsey was looking to change up the show. Extra was losing its clearances on NBC owned stations in six top markets and moving to Fox, and Fox wanted to see something different. At the same time, Extra’s host, Mario Lopez, was moving to NBCUniversal’s Access Hollywood (ironically, the show from which Bush hailed) so the time was right to try something new.

Gregorisch-Dempsey reached out to Bush in the most modern of ways: she direct-messaged him on Instagram. But Bush, 47, remains of a generation and didn’t see the message until his new agent pointed it out and set up a lunch between the two of them.

Gregorisch-Dempsey claims credit for launching Bush’s TV career, hiring him as a New York-based freelancer for Extra back in the day. At the time, George W. Bush had just become president and Gregorisch-Dempsey wanted to put a Bush on the air. But when the show insisted on referring to Bush as the president’s nephew, he got annoyed. He wanted people to know him on his own terms.

Fast-forward to 2019, and Gregorisch-Dempsey still thought highly of Bush’s talent, his work ethic and his relationships.

“We’ve never had a host like Billy, who is also a journalist and deeply involved in the content,” Gregorisch-Dempsey said. “We should insure his phone because his contacts are worth their weight in gold.”

Following the Story

Gregorisch-Dempsey plans to take advantage of those contacts by turning Extra into less of a typical magazine show and more of a reality show, featuring Bush on the clock while he tracks down the story of the day. It seems like a stressful setup — Bush has to show up and try to close the deal on a story every day by early afternoon — but he seems entirely up for the challenge.

“The pressure is on me, certainly,” he said. “Most people in our genre go straight to hair and makeup and get handed their scripts, but the process of building stories and contacting people is what you do as a working journalist. We document that whole process now.”

Gregorisch-Dempsey and Bush brought the idea to Fox and they loved it, feeling that it fit right in with the station group’s emphasis on day-and-date topical programming.

Extra has come up with a new format that’s more investigative and less promotional,” said Frank Cicha, executive VP, programming, Fox Television Stations. “They have a talent in Billy Bush that I think can execute the concept and they have an executive producer and team that knows what they are doing. It’s a very clear vision of what they are going to do.”

It’s not just Extra that’s undergoing revisions. Both of the other top entertainment magazines — Entertainment Tonight and Access Hollywood — also are shaking things up. The reasons for the changes are multifold.

First, like all syndicated shows, there is pressure on the economics. As ratings decline due to viewer fragmentation, so does revenue. Adapting to less resources has been a challenge in a genre that had gotten used to champagne tastes and now has to run on light-beer budgets.

Second, all of the shows would like to grow by attracting younger audiences. This is especially challenging because not only do young people not watch this format, they don’t watch linear TV. That makes it nearly impossible to bring those demographics to linear television, no matter the format. That’s why Entertainment Tonight, for example, has launched a 24/7 streaming service, ET Live, that relies on younger, less experienced, but maybe more socially fluent talent.

Conversely, when these shows try to program to younger viewers, they run the very real risk of alienating the older core viewers who do come to the set every night.

Finally, entertainment magazines face competition from celebrities themselves, who can publish all of their own content direct to social media and no longer have much need for the magazines.

ET Relies on Its Brand Equity

At Entertainment Tonight, a combination of those factors resulted in the departure of longtime anchor O’Dell, who started on ET in 2011 after 13 years at Access Hollywood. CBS also brought in a 37-year-old executive producer, Erin Johnson, to bring a different perspective to the production.

“People aren’t waiting until 7:30 p.m. to get the news — news is happening immediately,” Johnson said. “We’re really looking to make our show more of an experience and make it more fun while providing additional context.”

What that means is making the show less about reporting the entertainment news of the day, and making the show more about providing viewers with what feels like exclusive access. For example, ET spent the finale of CBS’s The Big Bang Theory backstage with the cast; visited Jennifer Lopez, currently starring in box-office topper Hustlers, on tour and in her dressing room; and spent an entire episode at the Country Music Awards in Nashville with Garth Brooks as the guest co-host. It’s about giving viewers content they can’t get anywhere else that ET can deliver because of its brand equity, Johnson said.

“We want to lean into the fandom and offer them something totally unique,” Johnson said. That said, when celebrity news breaks — such as the death of Luke Perry or Valerie Harper — the show will throw out the plan and spend the episode focusing on the news of the day.

ET is looking to fill O’Dell’s spot with a female co-host but in the meantime Kevin Frazier remains in place. The show just added ET Live host Lauren Zima as a correspondent, joining Nischelle Turner and Keltie Knight. And like having Brooks as a guest host, other stars are joining for short stints as guest hosts, such as The Bachelorette’s Hannah Brown.

“When you had Mary Hart and then you have Nancy and you’ve only had those two women, you don’t just jump into another marriage quickly,” Johnson said. “But we have a great, deep bench so we don’t feel like we have to make this decision right away.”

Meanwhile, Access Hollywood also spent the summer busily working to change things up. It changed its name back to Access Hollywood after a two-year stint as Access, and it brought on entertainment magazine veteran Mario Lopez to fill the space left by NBC’s Natalie Morales, who departed the franchise after joining it in 2016. Morales took Bush’s vacated spot in 2016 when he went to join Today.

Lopez, who is probably the most recognizable of the current crop of entertainment magazine hosts, joins Kit Hoover and Scott Evans on the franchise. It’s now live for two hours a day in some markets, with three shows: Access Hollywood, the flagship; Access Daily, which had been called Access Live; and new show All Access. All Access is taking over Extra’s time slots on WNBC New York, KNBC Los Angeles, WCAU Philadelphia, KNTV San Francisco, WTVJ Miami and WVIT Hartford, Connecticut, focusing on true crime and human-interest stories.

Access Hollywood Goes Live

“In March, the team and I started laying the groundwork for the show to go live on the East Coast at 7 p.m. ET and to add an extra half-hour to the show,” said Maureen FitzPatrick, senior executive producer of all three shows, who replaced longtime Access Hollywood executive producer Rob Silverstein earlier this year. Besides serving as a senior development executive at CBS Television Distribution and launching Hot Bench, FitzPatrick most recently launched Tegna’s Daily Blast Live, now entering its third season.

“It’s great because all of these shows have a distinct tone and feel to them,” said Lopez, who last week underwent emergency surgery after tearing his bicep. “Nothing beats going live. We’ll be able to give our viewers up-to-the-minute details and we’ll be the only show in this space to do that.”

Lopez and team will broadcast from their brand-new set at Universal Studios. “You get a West Coast Today show feel,” Lopez said. “People visiting the park can come by and watch us do what we do.”

Besides the magazines, Lopez also signed a development deal with NBCUniversal and one of the first things to come from that is a reboot of Saved by the Bell that will air on the company’s new subscription streaming service, Peacock, coming this April.

Even with the changes, syndication remains a challenging place to be for the once all-powerful entertainment magazines. But perhaps Bush has it figured out: “I hope over time people tune into me because they know I care about what’s true, I care about people’s psychological health and if they are embroiled in some kind of controversy of the day, I will root through it with them responsibly and with empathy.”

Paige Albiniak

Contributing editor Paige Albiniak has been covering the business of television for nearly 25 years. She is a longtime contributor to Next TV, Broadcasting + Cable and Multichannel News. She concurrently serves as editorial director for entertainment marketing association Promax. She has written for such publications as TVNewsCheck, The New York Post, Variety, CBS Watch and more. Albiniak was B+C’s Los Angeles bureau chief from September 2002 to 2004, and an associate editor covering Congress and lobbying for the magazine in Washington, D.C., from January 1997-September 2002.