Van Messel exits; ‘E.T.’ turns to Blue

“Entertainment Tonight” exec producer Jim Van Messel has turned down a lucrative offer to stay at the helm of the top-rated Paramount entertainment magazine strip and will be replaced July 5 by “Hard Copy” exec producer Linda Bell Blue.

Blue will give up her duties on the tabloid magazine series, with a new showrunner expected to be named shortly. Odds-on favorite for the post at “Hard Copy” is senior producer Ron Vandor. Senior producer Cheri Brownlee was mentioned as a possible co-exec producer or second-in-command.

“HCTV,” the newly revamped weekend edition of “Hard Copy,” is expected to be helmed by “Hard Copy” directors Dan Jbara and Paul Nichols.

Blue couldn’t control both series since “E.T.” depends on publicists as its lifeblood and “Hard Copy” is very anti-PR oriented. Some top publicists said they are nervous about the producing change at “E.T.”

Frank Kelly, president of creative affairs for Par Domestic TV, says publicists should take note of the fact that prior to “Hard Copy” Blue was a news producer at both ABC and CBS.

The shakeup, coming only a week after Van Messel’s former “E.T.” exec producing partner David Nuell left the top spot at Warner Bros.’ “Extra – The Entertainment Magazine,” had been anticipated after weeks of rumors about intense negotiations.

Sources say Paramount has known for the past week that Van Messel wanted out. He joined “E.T.” in 1987 as senior producer under Nuell and was upped to exec producer two years later. The pair – with Van Messel handling day-to-day chores and Nuell dealing with publicists and agents – were credited with turning around the fortunes of the highly profitable series, now in its 14th year.

In a brief interview, Van Messel would only say that Par “made a very fair offer. It was an offer 90% of people who do what I do would have jumped at. It was just not right for me at this point in my career.”

But sources close to the producer say the split with Paramount came not over money, but rather a test of wills between Van Messel and Kelly. They say Van Messel wanted an umbrella pact covering ancillary areas such as international, but Kelly balked at that demand.

Kelly denied there were any major differences, saying, “The deal was quite makable.”

Sources say Van Messel viewed Kelly as a micromanager and was unhappy about Par cutting the show’s promotion budget in the wake of its move this past season from the NBC to CBS stations in the top three markets. The switch contributed to a ratings decline for “E.T.”

Kelly, however, says the “E.T.” promotion budget is larger than ever and the two had a strong working relationship.

Van Messel, whose contract runs through the end of July, has a development deal with Paramount. Unless Par waives the clause, the studio is understood to have the right of first refusal on Van Messel’s projects for 90 days following the expiration of his deal.

One likely landing place for Van Messel would be at NBC; his former boss at WRC in Washington, D.C., John Rohrbeck, now runs the network’s owned stations. Because the TV business is so strange, some would not rule out Van Messel winding up in Nuell’s slot at “Extra.”

In the case of Blue, she is expected to take “Hard Copy” senior producer Carla Pennington – one of the guiding forces behind “Hard Copy” – with her to “E.T.”

Blue, who is considered a strong hands-on producer, assumed the top spot at “Hard Copy” two years ago with Linda Ellman (the latter exited after the first season). The two oversaw a rise in the show’s ratings, which, like other tabmags, have been depressed this past year because of the O.J. Simpson trial.

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