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On the Tube: 20 years of 'ET'

Friday, June 28, 2002

By Lynn Elber The Associated Press

While pundits mull Tom Brokaw's replacement, Peter Jennings' salary and Dan Rather's longevity, let's have a moment in the spotlight, please, for the perkiest anchor of them all.

Mary Hart: "I operate a little bit on paranoia, a reminder that you can't take anything for granted." (Charles Bush)

Mary Hart, television's doyenne of Hollywood news, celebrates her 20th year with "Entertainment Tonight" (7:30 p.m., WTAE) this month. She is, she says, as happy and fulfilled as ever.

And why not? Tom Cruise sends her flowers after an interview. Richard Pryor, once a tough interview, shares his woes and tears with her. All that, and Hart still has time for 10-year-old son AJ and husband Burt Sugarman, a producer and businessman.

"When you look at what the focus of life is at this point, it's doing the best show I can every day, but then going out and watching his [AJ's] baseball games and playing catch until the sun goes down and my arm is aching," Hart said.

"You play catch?" said a skeptical publicist, sitting in on an interview in Hart's casually decorated office on the Paramount lot.

"Oh, God, yes. I swear I'm getting bursitis. I'm out of shape," Hart replies with a mock groan.

So she says.

The 51-year-old Hart looks impossibly young and wide-eyed, and those famously insured legs (a $2 million Lloyd's of London policy) would do Britney Spears proud.

After two decades with the top-rated syndicated news magazine, however, Hart isn't resting on her laurels, legs or lip gloss. While she speaks warmly of her "Entertainment Tonight" colleagues, giving them credit for the show's success, she clearly knows how to take care of business.

A Sioux Falls, S.D., native (and a Miss America contestant), Hart started with talk and public affairs shows in her home state, Iowa and Oklahoma before moving to Los Angeles. She was part of "PM Magazine" and a short-lived show with Regis Philbin before joining fledgling "ET" as a correspondent in June 1982.

She became co-anchor two months later (her first partner was Ron Hendren; her latest is Bob Goen). In 2001, Hart signed a deal to continue with "ET" for at least five more years, earning more than $5 million annually.

Hart is not only the face of the show; she's head cheerleader. In the key "sweeps" months, in which local ratings are used to set advertising rates, Hart makes rounds of calls to radio stations to promote "ET."

"In television today, audiences are so fragmented that you really have to toot your own horn ... on the airwaves, on billboards. You really have to let people know what's on the show that night."

What's on "Entertainment Tonight" is consistent and specific: the world of show business, its stars and those willing to talk about them.

Perched on stage with Goen, Hart reads each story with the crisp delivery of the seasoned pro that she is. Many of the stories may be slight, but Hart takes her job seriously -- after all, about 8 million people daily watch "ET," roughly the same number that tune into each of the major network evening newscasts.

"After 20 years, if you don't think it's difficult to come up with a new way of presenting the same stars, it is," said Hart. "It's a constant challenge, maintaining the relationships, fighting to make sure we're the first one to get behind the scenes of the latest 'Star Wars' movie or whatever it is.

"Those things are important, and people do look to 'ET' to be first."

They look to Hart for credibility, according to producer Linda Bell Blue.

"Her popularity is due to her commitment and her classiness," said Bell Blue. "She's not somebody who just swishes in, reads the prompter and then leaves."

Hart also believes she's a beneficiary of a spectacular blunder.

"Remember the Jane Pauley fiasco when Deborah Norville took over [on NBC's 'Today'] and people resented it? The network woke up and said, 'What did we do to ourselves?' Just because they had somebody younger and pretty and talented."

Hart reasons that there is a "comfort in familiarity. I think people like knowing you're going to be there. I hear that a lot."

Yes, Hart admits, she's upbeat. But in this competitive industry even her brand of pep carries only so far.

"I never forget that even after 20 years, shows go away. I operate a little bit on paranoia, a reminder that you can't take anything for granted. That gives me the energy, the feeling of being chased and wanting to stay ahead."

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