Mags sag

But TV viewers still have stars in their eyes

Jeff Zucker, president of NBC Universal, was agonizing last week over how to protect $250 million a year in “Today Show” profits that could be imperiled by the abdication of Katie Couric.

But Zucker can smile with contentment that the co-anchors of another big-deal revenue generator for NBC-owned TV stations — “Access Hollywood,” produced by NBC U — are contentedly toiling away under long-term contracts.

“Access Hollywood,” like its longrunning showbiz magazine counterparts, Paramount’s “Entertainment Tonight” and Warner Bros./Telepictures’ “Extra,” is still churning out profits.

The operative word is “still,” because 18 months ago, “Access” was looking over its shoulder at the syndication bow of a fourth showbiz news entry, “Insider,” also from Paramount.

Instead of cannibalizing the three existing showbiz mags, “Insider” strengthened the entire category, which has gained an average of 400,000 total viewers season-to-date.

By contrast, syndie’s three other key categories — talkshows, courtshows and gameshows — are showing audience declines this season.

With a fourth show in the mix, the four showbiz mags are competing for ad dollars, but the number of total viewers is growing.

“Insider” has shot up by 9% for the season to date (through February); “Extra” is up by 3% and “ET” and “Access” are even with last season in total viewers.

These shows target women 25-54, and three of them have engineered gains in the demo, season-to-date: “Insider” by 13%, “Access” by 6% and “ET” by 3%. “Extra” is even with last season.

Terry Wood, prez of creative affairs and development for King World and CBS Paramount Domestic TV, says the category has become healthier thanks to a bumper crop of celebrity-relationship stories.

“Let’s face it,” Wood says. “These stories make for great soap opera, and they’re addictive to women viewers.”

Par declines to discuss production costs, but the studio is shelling out a record dollar figure of more than $1 million a week to produce “ET” and another $1 million a week to do “Insider.”

When showbiz mags hire a Paris-based crew, the object of coverage is Audrey Tautou, not President Jacques Chirac. But the logistics of an “ET” “are comparable to nightly national newscasts,” says Bill Carroll, VP of programming for Katz TV, the firm that advises hundreds of TV-station clients about what shows to buy.

Linda Bell Blue, exec producer of “ET” and “Insider,” says, “Women watch ‘ET’ because they’re news viewers. They want to see the latest news about celebrities. In so many of our major markets, the lead-in show is the nightly network newscast.”

Fortunately for “ET,” a big chunk of the show’s budget gets offset by license fees from TV stations. And the show’s second revenue stream — ad dollars that have ballooned to a reported $150,000 for each of the three 30-second daily “ET” spots held back by Par — will funnel tens of millions of dollars’ worth of annual profit into the studio’s coffers. (TV stations keep the other 11 spots in each “ET” half-hour for local sale.)

While “ET” is raking it in, the profits pocketed by “Access Hollywood” are much more modest because it pulls in only about half of “ET’s” total viewers. But “Access” keeps its costs down to about $800,000 a week, at least in part because it operates under the rules of NBC News, which puts a damper on checkbook journalism.

Even if it wanted to, “Access” couldn’t have joined the bidding for exclusive rights to the video of Mary Kay Letourneau’s wedding to the student with whom she had sexual relations when he was 12 (and she was a 34-year-old married teacher with children), an indiscretion that landed her a seven-year jail sentence.

“ET” paid for those nuptial-video rights, and ran multiple stories leading up to the extensively covered event last May.

Madison Avenue looks with favor on the entertainment mags, says Hilary Estey McLaughlin, exec VP and general manager of Telepictures Prods., because they pull in lots of women not only 25 to 54 but 18 to 49.

“We’re one of the best ways for advertisers to reach women,” she explains, “and our content is advertiser-friendly.”

But the news is not entirely positive for the showbiz mags. Outside of the larger markets, where the mags tend to chalk up solid Nielsens, shows like “Access,” “Extra” and “Insider” have trouble generating meaningful license fees from TV stations, says Garnett Losak, VP of programming for Petry Media Corp., another rep firm.

“Many of the local TV stations I work with are not satisfied with the performance of these magazine shows in their markets,” says Losak. “If these stations could find an alternative show, they wouldn’t hesitate to replace the magazine.”

One reason the shows deliver more viewers in the big markets is that these stations spend lots more money on promo spots, particularly the NBC O&O group, which also has a financial stake in “Extra.”

Rob Silverstein, exec producer of “Access,” acknowledges the quality of the clearances gets shakier as the size of the market gets smaller. “The ideal,” he says, “is a good time period with a good news lead-in on a good TV station.”

“ET” has the clearance edge in these smaller markets because it’s 25 years old, compared to “Access,” now in its 10th year.

McLaughlin says another “distinct advantage” for the Par show is there’s only a single access time period in the Midwest, at 6:30 p.m., compared to the double 7 and 7:30 p.m. slots on the East and West coasts. “ET” harvests a big crop of those single-access Central time zone clearances.

And Par loves to boast that most of the “ET”/”Insider” stations have renewed both shows through 2012.

But in many of the big markets, McLaughlin says “Extra” is competitive with “ET” in the local Nielsens.

The magazine show rivalry, particularly between “ET” and “Access,” can lead to unpleasant backstage skirmishes.

Blue says she was not amused when MGM made the decision to give an exclusive first visit to the set of “Basic Instinct 2” to “Access” cameras.

“So ‘ET’ didn’t cover the opening,” she says. “We never did even one story on the movie.”