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Linda Bell Blue joins ''Entertainment Tonight''

Linda Bell Blue joins ”Entertainment Tonight” — The new executive producer expected to make changes on the celebrity focused show

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Should Susan Smith live or die?. You’ll have a chance to vote in a special ET poll that’s coming up.

That’s entertainment? These days it is. Though a poll on the fate of the convicted child killer is like something you’d see on Hard Copy, this was how John Tesh kicked off the July 24 Entertainment Tonight — and it’s the most visible example yet of ET‘s new tabloidlike direction.

Since July 5, ET has been helmed by executive producer Linda Bell Blue, who held the same post at Hard Copy and has given the softer ET more edge. Blue replaced Tesh and coanchor Mary Hart’s start-of-show spiel with a punchier intro emphasizing the sensational. A segment inspired by the Hugh Grant scandal included a visit with Sunset Boulevard prostitutes. Another promised that Keanu Reeves ”is finally coming clean about some dirty Hollywood rumors” — then revealed that in an interview, Reeves declared (surprise!) he’s not gay.

For her part, Blue insists no such overhaul is in the works. ”I’m not going to make ET into a tabloid show,” says Blue, 39, who took Hard Copy from worst to first against hard hitters A Current Affair and Inside Edition. ”I’m just producing it a little differently. This ship is not broken; I’m not going to fix it.”

But shoring up the 14-year-old show makes sense given the choppy waters ahead. Produced by Paramount Domestic Television, ET can’t afford to dismiss its direct competitor, Time Warner’s Extra, even if the year-old upstart hasn’t proven itself a ratings threat. And ET will likely face off against Seinfeld and Home Improvement in many markets this fall, as the sitcoms go into syndication. ”Entertainment Tonight is not considered a tabloid, so it doesn’t hurt their reputation to do this,” says Steve Sternberg, a senior partner at BJK&E Media Group. ”If they can get viewers who watch Hard Copy and Inside Edition without alienating the viewers they have, they only gain from that.” Other insiders note that ET won’t become a replay of Hard Copy, also produced by Paramount. ”It doesn’t make economic sense,” says one source, ”to drain viewers from a moneymaker like Hard Copy. Each show has its own niche.”

The new approach seems to be working: In the first week of ET‘s Blue period, ratings jumped 11 percent, besting the other syndicated newsmagazines by the biggest margin since March.

Even ET‘s hosts appear sanguine. Despite rumors that Yanni-come-lately Tesh was displeased with Blue’s initiatives, Hart insists they’re shiny happy anchors. Admitting that they’ve asked for script changes before, Hart adds, ”[but only] a few words here and there.” Tesh, who quarreled with Paramount in May over his work schedule — he wants more time for his music — declined to comment.

In the end, the speculation may work to ET‘s advantage. ”Everybody is looking at what we’re doing,” says Hart. ”If it gets a few new people to tune in, good!”

Additional reporting by Sue Karlin