MICHELE NORRIS, host:
We have one more big TV departure this week. Mary Hart is stepping down after three decades hosting "Entertainment Tonight" - and stepping, presumably, with those famous legs, once insured for a million dollars each.
NPR's Neda Ulaby visited Mary Hart at work in Studio City, California. And they talked about how entertainment news and celebrity have changed in the 29 years since Mary Hart has been on air.
NEDA ULABY: Mary Hart is gliding across "Entertainment Tonight's" blinky orange set, as she has over 7,000 times since she joined the show in 1982. Around her in the darkness lurk legions of boom operators, makeup artists and stage managers.
Unidentified Man: Five, stay turning; four, walking; three; two...
ULABY: Just a few minutes ago, two people from wardrobe literally sewed Mary Hart into a clingy red dress. She's wearing the highest, sparkliest gold high heels imaginable. But off set, in her pastel bungalow, Mary Hart comes across as the former schoolteacher from South Dakota she happens to be, and honest about how critics have always perceived her show.
Ms. MARY HART (Host, "Entertainment Tonight"): They love to put us down. Oh, that fluff. It was always the fluff. But I have always said, look at how much money people pour into their entertainment.
ULABY: Close to $3,000 a year for the average American family, more than gas or furniture - or education.
(Soundbite of "Entertainment Tonight" theme music)
ULABY: Back in the early 1980s, it was assumed that regular people did not care about the entertainment industry's industry side. Then came Hart and her co-host, John Tesh.
(Soundbite of music)
Mr. JOHN TESH (Co-host, "Entertainment Tonight") How will you know what's happening in the world of entertainment today?
Ms. HART: Watch "Entertainment Tonight," and you won't miss a beat.
ULABY: That's an old ad, from 1988.
Ms. HART: We were the first ones to talk about television ratings, and talk about box office grosses over the weekend.
ULABY: Believe it or not, some station programmers were amazed to learn 20 minutes of entertainment news could be found to fill a half-hour show every day. Hart remembers a watershed moment for "Entertainment Tonight" in 1986.
Ms. HART: Way back when "The Twilight Zone" helicopter crash killed Vic Morrow and the two children, it was a terrible tragedy. But you know what? We were on the set. We were in the courtroom for the trial every single day.
Mr. SCOTT OSBORN (Reporter, "Entertainment Tonight"): Judge Brian Crahan will decide if there is sufficient evidence to order a trial. Scott Osborn, "Entertainment Tonight."
Ms. HART: That was when the networks had to sit up and go, wait a minute; we don't have that footage. We'd better call "Entertainment Tonight."
ULABY: Hart thinks this marks the moment when entertainment coverage really started seeping into mainstream news. At first, she says, "Entertainment Tonight" had no real competition. Then came the copycats: "Hard Copy," "Access Hollywood," even a whole network, E! And now?
Ms. HART: Today when you say who's your competition? you look around and go, uh, well how about USA Today, the newspaper? How about the "Today" show, "Good Morning, America," the "CBS Early Show"? They all want celebrity news. They know it sells because we proved it first.
ULABY: But having created a hunger for celebrity news, "Entertainment Tonight" is lagging behind in selling it. Right now, according to Nielsen, about 6 million people watch "Entertainment Tonight." Ten years ago, it was more like 8 million.
Anne Helen Petersen is an academic who's studied the show.
Ms. ANNE HELEN PETERSON: This is not the 18-to-34 audience. This is the 34-to-60 audience. That's really her prime demographic and mostly women, middle class.
ULABY: Who related to Hart's gentle goofiness, and made her an entertainment news icon. When Hart leaves "Entertainment Tonight," Petersen says it's the end of an era.
Ms. PETERSON: This is a show that's really, really important to the history of gossip and the way that the gossip industry works, and the type of information that the gossip industry itself found important.
ULABY: But what's important, Petersen says, has changed. "Entertainment Tonight's" sneak previews and backstage access are less compelling in today's obsessive, hyper-charged celebrity culture.
I asked Mary Hart if "Entertainment Tonight" might have laid the groundwork for "TMZ" and aggressive stalkarazzi. She said no.
Ms. HART: I think there is a meaner tone, and I don't just see it in entertainment news. It's just in general.
ULABY: Whenever she's not on set filming her last week on the show, Mary Hart seems to be doing interviews about her favorite interviews - Michael Jackson, Richard Pryor, Annette Funicello.
For NPR, she launched into an anecdote about Helen Hayes, the stately stage actress sometimes called the first lady of American theater.
Ms. HART: She was such a dear lady. She was already 91 years old. I was sitting in her living room. We had all of our lights and everything set. It was quite the big set-up in this charming, little old lady's house.
And all of a sudden, one of the light stands fell, hit her on the head. She falls over onto her sofa, and I'm sitting there across from her going, oh my gosh, we just killed Helen Hayes.
ULABY: Helen Hays survived. So did Mary Hart.
Neda Ulaby, NPR News.
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