How to Make A $100 Million Decision

10:01 PM PST 06/01/2011 by Stephen Galloway
David Strick

Behind the scenes of the CBS syndication cash cow as executive producer Linda Bell Blue and "Entertainment Tonight" usher in Nancy O'Dell, its first new female co-host in 29 years.

Linda Bell Blue hurtles through a warren of hallways, khaki skirt clinging to her yoga-hewn form, peroxide hair glistening as if volts of electricity are coursing through it, a dozen aides scurrying to keep up in CBS' Studio City offices.

If Entertainment Tonight's executive producer seems even more possessed of nervous energy than usual, there's a reason: This is the first day in 29 years that her show will welcome a new woman to the anchor desk: Nancy O'Dell, the former Access Hollywood co-host who is replacing veteran Mary Hart.

It's 9:30 a.m. on Monday, May 23, less than 72 hours since ET bid Hart farewell at a champagne-soaked party. Now the staff isn't just recovering from the celebration, it's also coming to terms with adding an outsider to the mix of this CBS syndication jewel.

"It's the biggest challenge I've faced on the job," Bell Blue admits. "Finding the right person was everything."

Seconds later, she and the "right person" are hugging warmly in O'Dell's dressing room. They're a study in contrasts -- one a human tornado, the other a picture of Southern charm, immaculate in a bright red dress that Bell Blue has personally approved for her debut today.

"You're gonna be great, hon," the producer says. "You're gonna do just fine."

Then Jamie Foxx sweeps in for a "surprise" visit and soon they're all racing toward ET's studio, where O'Dell clambers onto a revolving stage, takes her place beside fellow anchor Mark Steines and, as light and bright as a souffle, scans through the day's top stories -- from the Dancing With the Stars finale to Arnold Schwarzenegger's "love-child." Two hours later, it's over, virtually without a flub.

"One thing's for sure," O'Dell beams as a stage manager helps her down -- no easy feat in six-inch heels -- "I'm always going to remember Arnold."

♦♦♦♦♦

Whether audiences remember O'Dell may prove more germane.

At a time when television has been rocked by some of the highest-level departures in history -- from Katie Couric at CBS Evening News to Simon Cowell at American Idol to Oprah at The Oprah Winfrey Show -- it's been easy to overlook another with almost equal significance to CBS: Hart at ET.

The 60-year-old anchor had already cut back her hours over the past year, allowing the show to reduce her salary from $6 million to approximately half that, when she formally announced in August 2010 that she would not return for a 30th season. Finding a substitute would impact ET's annual $100 million-plus in profits, according to sources, still immense in the midst of a declining syndication business that has led to some layoffs and cutbacks, reducing ET's total budget from around $40 million to $35 million per year.

"The money's not there anymore," an executive notes of syndication. "CBS doesn't have Oprah as a bargaining chip, and stations don't want to pay as much. They say, 'I know you're throwing [ET spinoff] The Insider in, but you've got to drop your price.' That's where the problem lies."

To address this, Bell Blue created a shortlist of five names as potential replacements. But when she heard O'Dell was available -- a candidate embraced not only by her, but also by CBS Television Distribution president John Nogawski and the division's then-head of creative affairs and development, Terry Wood -- everything changed.

In 2009, the presenter had left Access of her own volition after 13 years on the show. "It just didn't feel like the right fit anymore," is all she'll say. While still technically under contract to NBC, that was about to expire, and she would be free to join ET.

Following an initial meeting with Wood and Bell Blue, a second get-together took place Oct. 7 among Bell Blue, O'Dell and Nogawski. The three searched for a place where they could confer in secret, finally settling on Nogawski's country club. Almost immediately,  they bonded.

"I said, 'I remember watching Entertainment Tonight from my home in South Carolina as a teenager and thinking, I'd love to work for that show!' " O'Dell recalls. "And John made a comment, 'Boy you're going to have your dreams come true!' "

After a brief period of radio silence while Bell Blue was abroad, O'Dell got a call offering her the job. Within weeks, her agent had wrapped negotiations guaranteeing his client some $2 million per year, and on Nov. 8, ET made the signing public.

If O'Dell was ecstatic, one person wasn't: Lara Spencer, the co-anchor of The Insider, also executive produced by Bell Blue.

The news was especially embarrassing given an erroneous Aug. 5 blog report stating Spencer had closed a deal for Hart's post. Soon after, she chose to leave, even though that meant walking away from a salary of almost $3 million. She has since joined Good Morning America.

Spencer's resignation was the only blip in a smooth segue as O'Dell joined ET Jan. 3 to prepare for the transition and was embraced by the staff.

"She is, like Mary, the loveliest, sweetest, most genuinely hardworking, all-around fantastic human being," says a colleague.

True. But would that be enough to make her a success?

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It's 5:30 a.m. on Wednesday, May 25, and key members of the staff are gathered in a small conference room just off ET's spacious news floor.

Bell Blue sits at the end of a table, surrounded by a dozen producers, including her No. 2, Linda Fuller; senior line producer Elise Backus; and news director Rick Joyce -- all plotting the day's show. Phones are ringing; half-finished clips play on a huge television screen; computer keyboards click away as each staffer races to update the day's events.

Bell Blue dominates the meeting with a star's charisma, peppering them with questions: "How are we doing with Russia and the Transformers premiere? What about John Edwards' indictment? Those Oprah graphics, did you get them changed?"

Nothing escapes her, from Schwarzenegger video licensing rights to the fonts used for each story. Her lightning-bolt style cascades through everyone here -- essential, given that they have precisely seven hours to finish a 22-minute, 51-second show before it "hits the bird" and goes out via satellite at 12:30 p.m.

Behind the executive producer, three columns of multi-colored Post-its are stuck to the wall, one for each remaining show this week. Every Post-it represents a different segment, with some 10-13 per program, ranging from mere seconds to several minutes. There's a Post-it for the American Idol finale; a Post-it for the last Oprah; a Post-it for Dancing With the Stars -- and, of course, multiple Post-its for the Governator.

"Where's Arnold?" Bell Blue inquires.

"No one's seen him," a staffer shrugs.

That's bad news, especially given that ET has two or three camera crews stationed around town, ready to catch him the second he emerges. It's even worse given that the show needs a fresh spin for the video it's obtained of his mistress drinking at a party, and an exclusive interview with her ex-husband.

(ET, like other news magazines, doesn't pay for interviews, but it does pay for licensing rights, which often just happen to come with an interview attached. Bidding for rights connected to the husband reached well into six figures, sources say.)

At 55, tanned and trim in a bright purple dress, Bell Blue doesn't flinch at the pace. Action is her dominant mode and has been ever since she took over ET in 1995 after a stint at Hard Copy, perhaps ever since she was a kid in Springfield, Missouri, shaped by her father, who ran an oil distribution company.

"My daddy gave me my drive," she says. "I always wanted to prove to him that I could do something. He was a kind father, but he was always pushing my buttons: 'Linda Bell, you're never gonna amount to a hill of beans!' " She laughs. "My dad was a big personality, and when he died seven or eight years ago, I had a moment where I didn't know why I was trying so hard anymore."

Now she's doing it out of sheer love. Up at 4 a.m. each day, she watches the East Coast news with her husband, Comcast executive Steve Blue, then scans the Internet as she's getting ready for work. She's on a conference call with New York before the 5:30 meeting begins, then has another staff meeting at 9. She watches The Insider and ET feeds around noon and her day can continue well into the night if she has events to attend.

But it's all worth it, if she wins.

"It's unacceptable not to win," she says, puzzled that one might possibly think otherwise. "That's why I'm here. To win."

She's been winning for years, keeping ET among the top 10 syndicated shows on television, with ratings that dwarf the competition, even if they're down, like all TV, from its historic highs. She's done so by blending rapid-fire editing with bright graphics and cutting-edge scoops -- and a unique mingling of tabloid news with a star-friendly vibe. 

She's also done it by maintaining the loyalty of almost all her 230 staffers -- including a great many strong-willed women like herself -- ranging from senior producers to a 23-person Internet team to eight editors, five graphic artists and the group of 20 who run the "vault," where 579,216 video clips are stored from past ET and other shows.

Not everybody responds to her zeal: She recently parted ways with Heidi Clements, a mere eight months after Clements was named co-executive producer. But most collaborators sing her praises.

"ET's success is simple," says one of the show's most admired newshounds, Bonnie Tiegel. "It's Linda Bell Blue, Linda Bell Blue, Linda Bell Blue."

O'Dell shares her enthusiasm. "I remember I left [our first meeting] and called my husband saying, 'I love this lady!' " she says. "You click or you don't click, and we just clicked."

♦♦♦♦♦

It's Thursday morning, right after the last day of sweeps, and O'Dell sits back in her vast, empty office as her week draws to a close, relieved that everything else has clicked, too.

She laughs at the office's Spartan décor. "I've been working so hard, I haven't even had time to furnish it!" she says.

It would be a mistake to think O'Dell is simply a glorified newsreader. She's constantly out at premieres, interviewing celebrities, doing marathon "radio tours" to promote the show and texting sources for information.

After stumbling into journalism, following a start in TV sales, she did everything from covering local news to pretending she was a prostitute, walking the streets with a black wig while taking part in an on-air police bust -- twice.

Today, she's been up since 5. She hopes to be done by mid-afternoon, but is prepared to handle breaking news -- like yesterday, when word spread as the show wrapped that Schwarzenegger might be indicted by California's attorney general. Even at home, she has a dedicated high-speed line for quick voiceover updates. "One of the first things they did was build that," she notes.

At the same time, she's juggling a marriage to Conviva Networks exec Keith Zubchevich, two stepsons and a 3-year-old daughter -- all with an unbridled enthusiasm that makes one think nothing can possibly have gone wrong in her life.

Which is, of course, ridiculous.

Dissatisfied during her last years at Access, she was there when she learned her mother was terminally ill. "It was the most traumatic thing I have ever gone through in my life," she says. "She lost her voice for about a year and we couldn't figure out why. She was hoarse, then got a whisper, then her voice completely went away. A year later, she was diagnosed with ALS" -- Lou Gehrig's disease. Eight months after that, in 2008 she died.

Her death may have impacted O'Dell's decision to leave Access before her contract was up, plunging her into the unknown. "I was a little scared," she confesses. "I wondered if other things would come."

They did -- first a series of freelance gigs, then ET. "I didn't have any idea Mary would announce this was going to be her final season," she marvels. "Had that not happened [exiting Access], I'd never have been available."

With only a few hours' work ahead tomorrow before her initial week ends, the future looks good. These first four days, ET's ratings have been up 8% over a year ago, according to a CBS spokesman. In some major markets, they've been even better -- like New York, up 27% over the previous Monday-Thursday.

The Schwarzenegger maelstrom has helped; so have all those staffers toiling behind the scenes. But O'Dell has been crucial.

"I'm very happy," she admits modestly. Then her eyes glint, and some of Bell Blue's drive seeps out. "But we've still got the next sweeps ahead."           

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