Bringing Enthusiasm To Almost 20 Years of ‘Tonight’s
The first time that Linda Bell Blue—Entertainment Tonight and The Insider’s executive producer emeritus—attended the Oscars with then co-EP Carla Pennington in tow, she was as star-struck as anyone.
“We got all suited up with hair and make-up, the whole works, and there we were on the red carpet. It was like a real dream,” she says. “I remember that we went into the ladies room before we went into the ceremony and there was Susan Sarandon, looking in the mirror next to us. We had interviewed so many stars at that point, but it was still a fairy-tale moment for us.”
That Bell Blue still sounds so enthusiastic about Hollywood and all its trappings after 19 years of covering the industry explains how she’s maintained her passion for the business for so long. It’s also one of the reasons she’s among the elite recipients of the Brandon Tartikoff Legacy Award at this year’s NATPE in Miami Beach.
Bell Blue studied broadcast journalism at the University of Missouri at Columbia (the same school attended by Hollywood stars Brad Pitt and Jon Hamm) and got her start working at KOMU, the NBC affiliate the school runs.
From there, she moved on to Miami, DMA No. 16, where she wrote news at WCKT (now Sunbeam-owned WSVN) for a year, and then moved on to Detroit—market No. 11—to produce the evening news.
She only stayed a year once again, because she had bigger ambitions, moving on to KIPX San Francisco (market No. 5). And then in 1982, at age 26, she was named executive producer of news at KCBS Los Angeles, a big station in the nation’s second-largest DMA.
Turns out, L. A. was the place for her.
Among her biggest scoops at KCBS was landing an exclusive interview with mass murderer Charles Manson.
In 1987, Bell Blue moved over to a new sort of show that was coming down the line: Paramount’s tabloid entertainment news series, Hard Copy. In 1993, she became Hard Copy’s executive producer, a job she did for two years, until a career-making opportunity came up.
The executive producer of Entertainment Tonight, Jim Van Messel, was moving on to launch a competitor, NBC’s Access Hollywood. Paramount asked Bell Blue to take over for Van Messel. Bell Blue’s job history had found her constantly climbing higher; ET was the pinnacle. She remained at Entertainment Tonight—and later, The Insider, which launched out of ET—for 19 years, from 1995-2014.
“After I took over, I think the show immediately became more newsy; the competitive edge grew when I came. There was no losing on a story,” she says.
Among the high points were following the Obamas on the campaign trail, interviewing first ladies in the White House, covering a movie shoot in Cairo and standing so close to the Sphinx you could “practically reach out and touch it,” and covering the royal wedding of Prince William and Catherine Middleton. A B&C Hall of Famer, Bell Blue and ET also have the distinction of winning the first-ever Daytime Emmy for Outstanding Entertainment News Program, a win that came not long after Bell Blue departed ET and The Insider last summer.
Through it all, her enthusiasm for the job remained at a fever pitch. “I remember after William and Catherine had gotten married and disappeared into the palace, they reemerged in this convertible car that Prince Charles had given Prince William and they drove right past us. I screamed ‘congratulations!’ at the top of my lungs.
“ET brought so much adventure into my life,” she continues. “Those memories can’t be erased.”
Many of Bell Blue’s coworkers moved on to run their own shows. Pennington is now the executive producer of CBS Television Distribution’s Dr. Phil and The Doctors, and Janet Annino, another Bell Blue lieutenant, runs CTD’s Rachael Ray.
Both remain grateful to Bell Blue.
“Linda has a real knack for spotting talent, developing talent and then pushing you beyond the limits that you thought you had. That’s not always easy or comfortable, but that’s how you grow and learn,” says Annino. “She taught me to trust my gut. She has some of the best instincts I’ve ever seen about what the audience would be interested in.”
“Linda was a taskmaster and extremely driven,” says Pennington. “She taught me to strive for perfection and to never take no for an answer.”
Looking ahead, Bell Blue says the public’s hunger for celebrity news will only grow, and so must ET and The Insider, both of which are currently executive produced by Brad Bessey and his team.
“The audience’s celebrity news obsession was inevitable and I think it’s a great thing. It’s the natural evolution of technology and of people’s curiosity,” she says.
Today, the pool in which ET plays is crowded indeed, with the likes of everyone from TMZ, Access Hollywood, Extra, Gawker, CNN, NBC News and so forth all trying to land the biggest fish of the day.
Still, Bell Blue puts her faith in ET: “When stories break, the news organization that breaks it is quoted far and wide, and more often than not, that organization is ET.”
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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.