For O’Dell,Many Happy Returns

Nancy O’Dell, the face of Access Hollywood for a decade, is returning to the field that made her famous as the new anchor of Entertainment Tonight.

O’Dell this fall will replace Mary Hart, the doyenne of entertainment news, who is departing ET after 29 seasons. The transition should be relatively seamless: Hart supports her replacement, and O’Dell is handling some anchoring duties in her current role for ET as special correspondent and substitute co-anchor.

“I want everyone to know that Mary is really thrilled about Nancy,” says Linda Bell Blue, executive producer of both Entertainment Tonight and The Insider. “It was important to me that Mary was happy with whoever we hired.”

O’Dell surprised the syndication world in December 2009 by stepping down from her post at Access Hollywood with two years remaining on her contract.

“It just wasn’t the right fit any longer,” O’Dell says of her decision. While ET wasn’t in the picture at the time, Hart had announced her retirement in August 2009, and a window opened for O’Dell. “Sometimes timing just works out,” says O’Dell, who notes that many former Access Hollywood producers and employees now work at ET, so the set felt instantly familiar to her.

During her year off, O’Dell stayed as busy as ever, both at home with her toddler daughter, Ashby, 3½, and with various projects. Those include writing and promoting her new scrapbooking book and line of products, “Full of Love,” and hosting primetime’s Your Own Show on OWN: The Oprah Winfrey Network with Carson Kressley. The series premiered Jan. 7 on OWN.

“When I was called to do [Your Own Show], I said, ‘Are you kidding me? Of course!’ Working with Oprah has long been a career goal for me,” O’Dell says.

Getting that gig also gave O’Dell a big entrance when she arrived on ET’s set on Jan. 3: She kicked off her first day on the job with an exclusive look at OWN, while hanging out backstage with Oprah herself.

O’Dell also has already booked an interview with Piers Morgan, who is in a position similar to her own: He’s replacing an icon as he takes over Larry King’s 9 p.m. time slot on CNN.

“Nancy is extremely competitive,” says Bell Blue. “She booked that interview with Piers Morgan herself. She started out as a TV news reporter, and she’s still got that instinct.”

While O’Dell’s tall, blonde good looks would catch anyone’s attention—she was Miss South Carolina in 1987 and a contender in the 1988 Miss America pageant—it’s her news instincts and professionalism that have impressed employers over the years.

O’Dell’s first job after graduating summa cum laude from South Carolina’s Clemson University with a degree in marketing in 1990 was as a sales associate at WPDE in her hometown of Myrtle Beach, S.C. When station management asked if she wanted to do some on-air work on weekends, she readily agreed.

“That really started by accident,” she says. “I had my weekends free, and it sounded like fun.”

Her broadcast career took off. She was soon lured to Charleston, S.C., to work as a morning anchor and crime reporter on WCBD. “I fell in love with reporting because it’s ever-changing,” she says. “I was on the crime beat, and I thought I was Police Woman. I did everything there.”

O’Dell remained in Charleston—a market she still loves—for three years before the major markets came calling. She chose to move to WTVJ Miami because that’s where she felt she would be best mentored. “I was scared out of my mind,” she says. “I was definitely a South Carolina girl and really close to my parents. And I was going from the 120th market to one of the top 16.”

But like everywhere else she went, O’Dell thrived in the exciting news market of Miami.

“I’ve done a lot of mentoring through the years, and Nancy was one of those people who just jumped out at you,” says Don Browne, who now heads Telemundo but at that time was WTVJ’s general manager. “She wanted to be the best investigative reporter in the country. The three things about her that impressed me the most were her passion, her drive to be excellent and her journalistic credentials.”

O’Dell stayed in Miami from 1994-96. Her then-husband, Dr. Richard O’Dell, planned to move to Las Vegas; she wanted to move to the West Coast to be close to him and let WTVJ know she would be leaving. To keep her in the NBC family, Browne recommended her for a new show NBC was launching, Access Hollywood. Entertainment reporting appealed to O’Dell, and she was hired as the show’s first on-air talent.

“As soon as I got there, I thought, ‘Wow, this is fun.’ I was getting to interview John Travolta instead of running through marijuana fields or posing as a prostitute for a story,” she recalls.

O’Dell served as Access correspondent for three years and was promoted to co-anchor with Pat O’Brien in 1999. O’Brien left the show in 2004 to become host of CTD’s The Insider. O’Dell, who married Keith Zubchevich in 2005, hosted Access with Billy Bush for the next five years.

After such career highlights at Access as interviewing Madonna and Richard Gere (on whom she says she still harbors a little crush), O’Dell is ready to launch her next chapter.

“I’ve gotten such great validation for this decision,” she says. “You try and live your life right, and then it’s wonderful when things work out. Everything has worked out the way it’s supposed to.”

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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.