Inside the Fluff Factory

It's 5 a.m. outside Sound Stage 26 on the Paramount Studios lot, pitch black and deadly quiet. But inside, the joint newsroom for Entertainment Tonight and The Insider is bright, noisy and wide awake. “We've got the tape from Puffy's party last night,” one ET staffer calls out to another, clutching a super-sized Starbucks. “Did you see it? It's unbelievable.”

The tape in question is of party girl Tara Reid and her eye-popping Nov. 4 red-carpet wardrobe malfunction while posing for the paparazzi outside a New York restaurant at rap mogul P. Diddy's 35th birthday party. As she shrugs a fake fur off her shoulders, with it goes a strap on her satin Christian Dior gown, revealing her left breast. For eight endless seconds, caught in cacophony of photographers' shouts and flashbulbs, the curvaceous blond seems oblivious. Until a handler runs over, Reid has no idea that she is about to become the scandale du jour.

“She doesn't know!”

“How could she not know?”

“Come on, she's showing off her new boobs!”

“But she looks mortified!”

As debate rages among the ET and Insider producers huddled around a monitor, the day's mission is set in motion: Get Tara Reid.

It will be a mission shared by no less than a half dozen syndicated entertainment-news magazines battling for a daily audience of more than 21 million viewers. Paramount's Entertainment Tonight, now entering its 24th season, is the granddaddy. And the list of blood-thirsty competitors backed by heavyweight studios has grown: NBC Universal's Access Hollywood, Warner Bros.' Extra and Celebrity Justice, CBS Enterprises and King World's Inside Edition, and the new kid on the block, ET offspring The Insider.

All these shows thrive on fluff and fantasy, but they execute on a very serious mission: feeding America's—and increasingly, the world's—insatiable appetite for Hollywood gossip.

Stations buy the celebrity newsmagazines to pull in enough viewers during access—usually around 7 p.m.—to attract premium ad dollars while funneling viewers into the stations' prime time lineup. For the heavyweight studios, these light-as-air baubles have evolved into enormous profit centers and launch pads for the studios' movies, TV shows and record sales.

ET alone is estimated to rake in roughly $159 million in revenue this year for Paramount parent Viacom. According to Morgan Stanley media analyst Richard Bilotti, Extra should generate around $76 million, Inside Edition roughly $33 million and The Insider, fresh out of the blocks (but with considerable startup costs), about $10 million. Now the genre has gone global. Cable's E! Entertainment, which reaches 75 million U.S. viewers, recently launched E! France and E! Italy, with additional feeds into the UK, the Middle East and Latin America.

With so much at stake and so many look-alike shows on the TV landscape, it's no wonder they're throwing elbows on the red carpet. ET senior producer Brad Bessey, who handles delicate negotiations with the stars, is praying for a line through to Tara Reid. He calls a friend at the New York Post. “I need to find her. It'll do her a whole hell of a lot of good. Can you call Lizzie and make this happen? … Cool, darling.” He hangs up. “I know through personal friends that Tara has vacationed at [publicist] Lizzie Grubman's house in the Hamptons. But I'm working against the clock.”

The deadlines are punishing. Produced in Los Angeles, the Hollywood newsmagazines have to be ready to “bird”—that is, be edited and ready to be fed to the satellites—between noon and 2 p.m. to make their timeslots on the East Coast. When a celebrity makes news, everyone wants to chew on the same carcass. The only questions are who will tear off the most fresh meat and how they'll prepare that meat for the viewing public.

It's 8:20 a.m., and Bessey has scored Reid's cellphone number. But before he can pick up the phone, veteran executive producer Linda Bell Blue, a blond whirling dervish who oversees both ET and The Insider, blasts into the show-runners' offices to set the tone for the story. “The Energizer Bunny's got nothing on her,” says ET weekend anchor Jann Carl.

Bell Blue has been running this newsroom for eight years; before that, she steered the ship at the now-defunct Hard Copy. A former local-TV-news executive, she wants to lead both shows with the Reid meltdown. But she tempers the approach. “It's very important that we take a sympathetic view of this,” she instructs her producers. “It could happen to anybody.”

The reason Bell Blue and her staff have now come down on Reid's side is that ET correspondent Maria Menounos was inside the Puffy party and confirmed that the actress was crying and upset all night. If he gets her on the phone, Bessey plans to use that information to persuade her to get on the air. “If people don't know her side of the story,” he says, “then they're going to say, 'Oh my God, she's a little tramp.'” But they don't have her yet; Bessey called and got her answering service.

The adrenaline rush of the chase is palpable as Insider host Pat O'Brien enters the newsroom and grabs Bell Blue in a crushing bear hug. He has just seen the overnights, the first night's tallies for November sweeps.

“We did an 8 [rating] in Philadelphia!” he says, the new show's best ever.

Bell Blue is like a kid on Christmas morning. “First night of the book, baby!” she congratulates him.

But there is no time to crow. While Paramount's ET is still the ratings champ by far, all celebrity magazines have taken a hit in the ratings, along with the larger broadcast industry. ET is down this year by 11%, Inside Edition 14%, Extra 8% and Access Hollywood 7%. The audience erosion can be explained in part by the continuing exodus to cable, to such networks as E! Entertainment Television and VH1. There is also, of course, the pitched battles with each other.

In selected major markets, including New York and Los Angeles, ET's Mary Hart and company get walloped regularly by the younger-skewing Access Hollywood. In such a fierce turf war, AH executive producer Rob Silverstein doesn't pull his punches. “Access Hollywood is what ET was 10 years ago, when people still cared about Mary Hart's legs,” says Silverstein, who has been with the show for eight years. “We're younger, smarter and faster. And the best thing we don't do is something we call 'anticipoint.' We're not going to tease something over and over again and not deliver. Younger viewers can see through all of that.”

At Extra and Celebrity Justice, senior executive producer Lisa Gregorisch-Dempsey doesn't mind the competition; what she minds is being ripped off. “This is really a hot button for me,” says the former consultant for the Fox Television Stations Group, where she hired talent for 22 Fox owned-and-operated stations. First, Extra weekend anchor Jon Kelley started pop quizzes with the stars, which she says ET lifted to create their segment “Stump the Star.” Then she claims similarities between the Extra segment “Rumor Control” and ET's “Yes It's True, No It's Not.” Says Gregorisch-Dempsey, “You know what? After a while, imitation is not the sincerest form of flattery. Get your own damn playbook.”

There is, of course, one big reason for the intense rivalry: the Sept. 13 arrival of The Insider. Paramount has designed the two shows to flow into one another, marketing the combo as the “Hour of Power” in local markets. The shows replaced Hollywood Squares and Who Wants To Be a Millionaire in many markets and was another bad break for those battling to unseat ET.

Even Insider host O'Brien, who famously jumped ship from Access Hollywood (and was initially sued for breach of contract) says his many years of experience on the red carpet didn't do much good against the ET juggernaut. “I fought them and fought them, working on Access Hollywood,” he says. “But I didn't make much of a dent.” Now, even though he's playing for the same management, O'Brien still wants to take the champion down. “My goal,” he says, “is to beat ET. You can quote me on that.”

But first, he's going to have to get past the woman power-walking toward the cameras on the ET set. By 11 a.m., Mary Hart, ET's seemingly unbeatable 23-year veteran, is ready to shoot the show's open: “Forget the Super Bowl. Did you see Tara Reid's red-carpet dress disaster? It's the one thing you never want to have happen in front of the cameras. Hi, everybody. I'm Mary Hart.” It's a perfect take, and Hart walks off camera. She's not buying Reid's obliviousness. “How could a woman not know she's out of her dress?”

She turns to the crew. “Did you guys see this, this morning?” Then she smiles. “You probably saw it a lot of times.”

Hart's Ultrabrite smile and aerobics-instructor body belie a laser-like focus on the business side: “I look at those numbers [the ratings] every single night”—and those numbers include The Insider.

Today, Hart is forced to take a back seat, because the powers that be have decided that O'Brien is the best person to place the next Tara Reid call. The reason? He has had the most face time with her in the past.

O'Brien, like other celebrity hosts, knows that going soft on stars in interviews has its advantages. “That's what [Paramount] bought: years of contacts and not making people angry so they come back.”

Indeed, The Insider has moved up from a 2.4 to a 2.7 national rating in its first eight weeks on the air. That translates into third place, behind ET and Inside Edition—and ahead of veteran Access Hollywood. Paramount President of Domestic Television John Nogawski says those numbers “are spectacular and actually ahead of schedule,” but the new show is still getting only about half of ET's audience. It trails its famous parent by 49% in households, 55% in adults 18-49 and 52% among adults 25-54. But, says Dawn Abel, head of Paramount research, “there are no alarm bells going off yet.”

Except in the newsroom. In light of recent indecency fines levied by the FCC, Paramount lawyer Joseph Jerome arrives to make sure the video is family-friendly. “I've got to watch out for the affiliates,” he says.

He needn't have worried. Staffers are putting together as many as 70 pieces of videotape for tonight's 12 stories on ET, including Reid, heavily pixellated, and several dozen more for the nine stories on The Insider. How do they stay excited about the fame game? “I think it's the thrill of winning,” says Bell Blue, who recalls “sleeping on the floor” of her office the night Britney Spears got married. Ratings, she says, “are like a report card, except that you can't fudge it and you can't hide from your parents.”

On set, O'Brien tells ET co-host Mark Steines that he advised Reid (who refused to be recorded) that “everything goes away in 72 hours” and that “she has a nice career ahead of her.”

Access Hollywood's Silverstein, once a good friend of O'Brien's, is less than impressed by the commentary. “None of which a real journalist would say,” says Silverstein. “We will never go in that direction. We're not lap dogs. We don't lie to people. We're not, like, 'Oh my God, Tara Reid's top fell off!' Everyone else did it as this serious story. We went the less obvious way. We had someone analyze, John Madden-like, what happened.”

Extra, also refusing to overhype, will fold Tara's dress drama into a brief, 15-second piece on the P. Diddy birthday party.

No matter how it's presented, simply stringing together a half-hour of Tinseltown news does not guarantee an audience. Fox's A Current Affair was cancelled in 1996 after nine years on the air. Hard Copy lasted 10 years, then got the hook in 1999. Celebrity Justice, an Extra segment spun off into its own series and now registering a paltry 1.1 rating, may be in trouble. Even the ET/Insider combo faces an uphill battle in the five markets—Austin, Texas; Denver; Knoxville, Tenn.; Minneapolis; and Pittsburgh—where the two shows don't run back to back but compete head to head.

“That's just the inevitability of a lack of real estate,” says Paramount's Nagowski. “We'll end up knocking somebody off the air, and we'll limit the competition as time goes on.”

With so many shows competing, is there room for another? Fox programmers are now looking at Current Affair, which at the time of its 1996 cancellation, was posting a 3.2 national rating—sensational by today's standards.

Will it be revived? Says a 20th Television spokesman, “It's under discussion.”