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''Entertainment Tonight'' and ''Access Hollywood''

”Entertainment Tonight” and ”Access Hollywood” — The two shows battle for show business scoops, but neither comes out on top

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”Entertainment Tonight” and ”Access Hollywood”

Like a celebrity journalism version of Godzilla vs. Mothra, Entertainment Tonight and Access Hollywood are lumbering, battling, slow-to-react behemoths who, in covering show business daily, lurch mechanically, falteringly, each in the hope of scooping the other with exclusive investigations into everything from Janet Jackson’s ”secret marriage” (ET) to pictures of the late John F. Kennedy Jr. with the teaser ”almost nude” (AH).

Jackson’s marriage is introduced only because the singer wants to use ET airtime to announce that it’s over, and the JFK Jr. pix are aired because…well, because everyone knows even deceased Kennedys attract viewers. Both examples suggest the pandering done by these shows on two levels: sucking up to the industry, and sucking up to their audience’s worst instincts. And the pandering will probably only get more desperate, since ET and AH, once the biggest media monsters in their genre, are beset by increased competition from similarly themed shows on cable outlets like CNN and MSNBC, Internet show-business websites, and, it would be foolish not to say, publications like Entertainment Weekly.

But once upon a time, there was just Entertainment Tonight, which premiered in 1981 with the playing field pretty much all to itself. Early-era ET was a biz-friendly enterprise that occasionally offered serious analysis of the industry (the latter due to the presence of Ron Hendren, whose 1981-84 stint was characterized by sharp thinking and a sharper tongue, and I’m not just saying that because Hendren used to be a TV critic…well, yes I am — hooray for our side). ET mutated from pop-culture watchdog to pop culture itself with the installation in 1982 of cohost Mary Hart, whose short-skirted legs silhouetted behind the semitransparent news desk were immediate viewer hits, and with the arrival, in 1986, of John Tesh, a mighty big man with a mighty big ambition to pursue a career as a New Age musician of mighty big banality. Tesh left to pursue his wayward muse in 1996; since then, Bob Goen, a darker-haired version of Tesh but, thankfully, with no pronounced inclination to tickle a keyboard, has been Hart’s most regular partner. (No, I’m not forgetting Leeza Gibbons, who many revisionists feel superseded Hart in the area of gam display; but throughout her 1984-95 stay, she always seemed like a Mary Wannabe, until she strode out on her own to launch an earnest daytime talk show.)

ET was never The New York Times of celebrity journalism, but at least it reported stories that informed its audience about what their fave celebs were doing. Now, however, ET too often reports on what they’re not doing. The July 10 broadcast, for example, was a paragon of non-news: A breathlessly hyped story about Britney Spears’ engagement to ‘N Sync’s Justin Timberlake? ET quotes a Britney spokesperson as saying it’s ”completely untrue.” Who’s going to play Harry Potter in the upcoming movie? ”The decision could be announced later this week.” ”Rachel Hunter sets the record straight,” we’re told, ”about reports she had cancer.” After a commercial, Hunter says she doesn’t have it. Again and again, spectres of scoops and scandal are espied, only to be denied. What’s the point?

Well, one point is that structuring the show like this helps it continue to defeat Access Hollywood, which launched in 1996 as an ET competitor (during May sweeps, ET attracted 7.7 million viewers to AH’s 2.9 million). Over at AH, the cohosts are Nancy O’Dell, who one-ups Hart by wearing the tightest outfits in broadcast journalism, and natty Pat O’Brien, who somehow manages to simultaneously convey enthusiasm and contempt for being enthused over such a silly broadcast. AH is all about logos: They don’t just give you exclusive glimpses of new movies; no, you get ”The Access Hollywood First Look” — which proves almost invariably to be the trailer for the movie, and only part of it at that. On AH, you don’t get a report on Richard Gere — no, you get ”Access Hollywood‘s Inside Story” on Richard Gere — which proves to be clips from a feeble-looking documentary about the actor airing, for pity’s sake, on Bravo.

Yeah, it’s tough competing for exclusives in a media-mad world tightly controlled by publicists. But leeching off other TV shows for fodder is pathetic, and ET is guilty of it as well. On its July 13 edition, the show promoted a new interview with Michael J. Fox about his Family Ties costar Meredith Baxter; turns out the footage was straight from an A&E Biography that was airing the following week.

AH is even willing to endorse what it’s reporting on before it’s been released. A segment on the 2001 feature-film release Pearl Harbor consisted of bits of the trailer plus O’Dell bubbling, ”With [producer Jerry] Bruckheimer and [director Michael] Bay, you know it’s gonna be a good one!” Just prior, O’Brien quipped, ”By the way, those are goosebumps you’re feeling.”

No, Pat; that’s a gag reflex I’m feeling. Entertainment Tonight: C- Access Hollywood: C-