By Ken Tucker
Updated July 26, 1996 at 04:00 AM EDT


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Now 15 years old, Entertainment Tonight has gone through a regular series of changes, the most recent of which was the departure of cohost John ”I Am Not an Alien” Tesh and the arrival of Bob ”Going, Going” Goen. ET‘s chief rival is a comparative upstart, Extra, which is enduring its version of the Terrible Twos: Nearing the end of its second season, Extra recently jettisoned its original anchors, Arthel Neville and Dave Nemeth, in favor of hosts Libby Weaver and Brad Goode.

A couple of things before I go any further: Time Warner, which also owns ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY, owns a majority of Extra, and a number of EW staffers, including this writer, have been interviewed on camera by both Extra and ET. For the record, and to whatever extent it clouds my judgment, Extra‘s lighting has always made me look more bald than ET‘s has.

Now then. It’s no piercing insight to say that in the process of covering showbiz, ET has become showbiz, with its own joked-about trademarks (the da-da-da-da-da-daaaa theme song, Mary Hart’s carefully showcased gams, movie maven Leonard Maltin’s cartoon lapel pins). But to analyze ET‘s content at all is a contradiction in terms, since this is a show that’s all about surface appearances: You watch to see how ET packages the latest movie/TV/CD premiere or ”exclusive” interview, because you know that’s the way the conglomerate bankrolling the movie/TV/CD wants it presented.

That ET is all about playing along makes Extra‘s job that much more difficult, because as far as showbiz publicity departments are concerned, there’s only one way to play along: Their way. And if ET‘ll do it for them, why bother with Extra? (Or, for that matter, why bother with print outlets like this one?)

It’ll be interesting to see whether Access Hollywood, a new competitor produced by former ETer Jim Van Messel and debuting Sept. 9, will be any more iconoclastic. NBC (which holds a minority equity position in Extra) intends to package the celebrity-heavy Access with Extra, which has forced the latter to take a more human-interest-oriented approach. Extra executive producer David Friend told the New York Post: ”If we talk to Sean Connery about The Rock, we’d want to talk to him about the dangers of chemical weapons… We’re trying to do stories that PEOPLE magazine would go after.”

I suppose an example of this was a recent Extra story on the racially motivated burning of black churches, the primary interviewee for which was the Rev. Jesse Jackson, or the June 19 piece that gave real-life firefighters the opportunity to point out false details in Fox’s new drama L.A. Firefighters. I doubt that this more earnest approach will boost ratings significantly — such stories don’t have enough hard-nosed reporting to qualify as news, and they lack the zing of fluffy celebrity items. They’re just jarring.

The fact is, most of the time, ET and Extra continue to dog each other for the same stories. Looking at a random week’s worth of shows, June 17-21, I found same-day coverage of the opening of Universal Studios’ Jurassic Park ride, Oprah Winfrey at a publishing convention, and George Clooney at the Eraser premiere.

On Monday, ET does a piece on a new sleazo book about JFK’s marriage; Extra does its version on Tuesday. Thursday: Extra interviews actor Samuel L. Jackson about taking children to see The Hunchback of Notre Dame; ET trumps that with a Jackson interview in which he admits to having smoked crack. (Mary Hart did the interview herself, in full Barbara Walters mode: ”How long have you been clean now?” ”Seven years.” ”That’s great to see, Sam.”) These guys even copy each other on the most peripheral stories: The same day ET interviewed David Charvet about leaving the cast of Baywatch, Extra ran a feature about Baywatch‘s two new cast members.

Speaking as an ordinary, channel-flipping, I’d-watch-something- like-this-even-if-I-weren’t-being-paid-for-it viewer: All the anchors are ciphers (have you noticed that ET weekend anchor Julie Moran’s voice is exactly the same as special contributor Leeza Gibbons’?), but I prefer ET, both because it has that commercial-break birthday list (”Barry Manilow is 50 years old today”) and because it’s not pretending to be better for me than other junk-food programming. I like to consume my cheese with its full fat content. Entertainment Tonight: B- Extra: C+


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