Mary Hart’s exit reps the latest shakeup in the syndication world, which is already adjusting to the idea of a post-Oprah universe. As stations continue to struggle, the days of hefty cash deals and lucrative talent contracts appears to be on the wane — hence Oprah Winfrey’s move to cable. It’s in that changing world that Hart announced Thursday that she would finally call it a day on “Entertainment Tonight.”
After nearly 30 years on “ET,” Hart is plotting one final season on the show before exiting next May. (The host’s contract was up, and the host was believed to have accepted a pay decrease as part of budget cuts.) The famed host spoke to Variety about her plans post-“ET,” and addresses the critical knock that she’s too “perky.” An edited transcript:
VARIETY ON THE AIR: Talk about your exit and the timing behind it.
MARY HART: Part of my press release, I said, I never expected to be here beyond three years, and all of a sudden we were looking at 30. It is the truth, time has flown by. I consider myself the luckiest person on the face of the earth. I’ve worked with many of these people for 20 years plus. Every time my contract has come up, I’ve said that’s it. 15 years is enough. That’s it, 20 years is enough. That’s it, 25 years is enough. Each time we’ve done the contract, we’ve done the deal again. This time, as I’ve watched my son go off to school and taken stock of other things I want to do with my life, I’ve said, OK, now it is time to turn the page and take stock of other things I want to do with my life. Now is really the time to turn the page and start another chapter. I don’t know what I’m going on to do. I don’t know if I’ll know what I’m going on to do when I leave “ET” next May. But there are other things out there that I know I want to do. I’m going to start it right off, hopefully I’ll be climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro soon after the show.
VARIETY: What made you keep signing those new contracts?
HART: In those first three shows, people said it would never last. And there was so much skepticism. At about the ten year point, we wondered, at what point have we saturated everybody’s interest. Having spawned so many other shows, we figured it couldn’t last. But here we are, 30 years under our belts. At that point, I’m not gunning for 40 years or even 35 years. I’m very satisfied and proud to have bee a part of the creation of this show and its history. It’s just time.
VARIETY: Oprah Winfrey is leaving syndication next year as well. Did that influence your decision?
HART: No. Not at all. Her timing is her timing, and mine, I had been thinking of doing this even before Oprah made her announcement. But it’s just ironic that she, Larry King and I are all calling it quits during the same time frame. But not calling it quits. I’m not using the “r” word. I have no intention of retiring from the business. There are other things I want to do. I can’t be specific at all. But there are opportunities out there. I can’t help but be reflective, but I don’t have time to be sentimental. I’ll save that for next May.
VARIETY: Is there something you can pick out that you can point to as being most proud of?
HART: When there is something extremely serious, either a story out there that’s false that has to be corrected, or a sad story that needs to be revealed, whether it was Richard Pryor or Annette Funicello who came to us first to reveal their terrible battles with MS. It’s those stories thta have left a deep impression on me. Being the person who reported it first to the whole world. Those are things you don’t forget. Because ‘ET’ is what it is — we were first, and I still believe we’re the best — there’s a prestige and a respect there. We are the ones that people come to to set the record straight or to tell their story, no matter how heartbreaking it can be.
VARIETY: How would you say the show has evolved?
HART: The more competition we’ve had, the better a show we have become. Especially in the Internet era. Having to chase down and verify stories 24/7 is not an easy thing to do. But that’s what we’re forced to do. Thirty years is a phenomenal achievement. I think it’s the look, I think it’s the tone. There are a lot of things to be proud of.
VARIETY: The Internet changed the way entertainment stories are presented, adding a bit more edge and snark to things. How do you react to that?
HART: I think it’s real important to just be up and up with the facts. As much as television begs for on-air attitude, whether you’re watching ESPN or no matter what, people want edginess. We’re not in the business to give our opinion on everything. We try to do it more straight-forward. I think snark is not a word you want to associate with “Entertainment Tonight,” ever.
VARIETY: Lara Spencer appears to be your likely replacement. Any advice for her? What would you impart to the person who takes your place?
HART: I love my job, and I always said whether it was with Jann Carl or Leeza Gibbons or any of the other wonderful women I have worked with, you would be crazy not to watch my job. And that includes Lara, who I’ve gotten to know over the past two years since she has moved here. Or Samantha Harris, who’s now doing the weekend show. It’s not my job to decide who is going to be my successor, but I wish them and the show the best. When that decision is made, if it is Lara, who ever it is, I hope they cherish the job as much as I have.
VARIETY: Critics aren’t kind on the entertainment magazine shows. How do you respond to that criticism that these shows are just too fluffy?
HART: That’s a valid question. We got hammered so long ago. What was entertainment news? People couldn’t wrap their minds around the concept that you would put a half hour of entertainment news ont he air each night. I always took that with a grain of salt. And I had plenty of offers to do serious news or straight news years ago. It was my preference not to do it at the time, even though I’m a news junkie. Just like being called “too damn perky,” you take that with a grain of salt. I’ve always been philosophical about the critics out there. Yes, it is entertainment news. But people spend billions of dollars on entertainment every year. It’s an important part of their pocket books. It’s something to be taken seriously.
VARIETY: Then there’s the infamous story about Lloyds of London insuring your legs. All these years later, is that still in place?
HART: I doubt it. I very much doubt it — but maybe it’s time to renew that policy.