Talking TV: How ‘Entertainment Tonight’ Went From TV Show To Brand
Entertainment Tonight barrels into its 42nd season next week not just as a syndicated magazine show stalwart, but as a multimedia brand.
Erin Johnson, the show’s EP, rose through its ranks on the show’s digital side, building the enterprise as a multiplatform, continuously updated source of celebrity news along the way. Now at ET’s helm, she thinks of her current role as more of a general manager or a symphonic conductor of the show’s numerous platforms than merely the top producer of a TV show.
In this Talking TV conversation, Johnson lays out her multimedia approach to ET and how constant change has been good for keeping the show sharp.
Episode transcript below, edited for clarity.
Michael Depp: Entertainment Tonight kicks off its 42nd season on September 12. It’s nearing the milestone of 11,000 shows, not to mention the untold miles of red carpet rolled out.
The show just picked up its seventh Daytime Emmy Award, its third in a row for those of you who keep track of such things. And just like the entertainment business that it covers, the show is continuously evolving and diversifying, including its hosting duties. With Nischelle Turner joining Kevin Frazier as its co-host last year, the two are the first black duo to host the newsmagazine.
I’m Michael Depp, editor of TVNewsCheck and this is Talking TV, the podcast that brings you smart conversations about the business of broadcasting. Up next, a conversation with Erin Johnson, the youngest executive producer in Entertainment Tonight‘s history. We’ll talk about the show’s milestone, what gives it its enduring appeal and how an old warhorse like ET can keep reinventing itself for new generations while staying true to the brand.
Welcome, Erin Johnson, to Talking TV.
Erin Johnson: Hello. Thanks for having me.
Forty-two years of ET, Erin. We can get our fix of entertainment news from a lot of different sources since the show debuted, so why do people keep coming back?
Well, I think that it is a lot of different sources. We’re really no longer just a television show. We are very much an entertainment news brand. And that’s how we’re running things over here. We’re thinking about not just what we’re putting on the TV show that night, but what we’re putting on the website within the next few minutes, what we’re putting on our social platforms, we’re streaming now. We’re really everywhere, so not just a television show.
The show is older than you. I mentioned you’re the youngest executive producer in the show’s history. But I bet you’re going to be telling me that you have been watching this since you were small.
Of course, this is truly having my dream job. This is where I’ve wanted to work since I was a kid watching Entertainment Tonight when I came home from school to know what all the celebrities were doing. So, it’s still not lost on me that I get to work here.
You took over the show in 2019. What have you done to keep it fresh?
Wow. So, we had a glorious six-month run of doing a lot of different things to kind of re-energize the show. Right when I took over in June of 2019, we did some talent shakeups. We started traveling the show, doing the show on location. We threw in some theme weeks. We just kind of re-strategized on the storytelling that we wanted to do on the broadcast.
We started making digital more of a focus, and then we also hit the pandemic about six months later, so then we had to pivot. And I think the good thing about the pandemic for us was that it forced us once again to not get comfortable. Just when we kind of like got into a new routine, it changed things up. And since the last really two-and-a-half years have been constantly evolving. I feel like we really haven’t rested in the entire time since I’ve been EP, which has been actually creatively stimulating.
So, continuous changes are the key then?
Yes, not getting too comfortable and also not changing too much that you are confusing your audience. But certainly, you know, being willing to try something new to take risks like really pay attention to the conversations that people seem to be having on various social platforms and then applying those to the story to tell humans that we’re doing on the broadcast as well.
Can you give me a kind of a concrete example of an incremental change to get a better sense of it?
When we were dealing with the Johnny Depp/Amber Heard trial, that was something that was very unique to our space. We’d really never seen anything like that before. And I think at first everyone was just like, oh, it’s another trial. They’re not quite like Law & Order. They’re not quite as interesting as you may think. But that one was definitely pretty interesting and unique.
It would have been easy to stop with just doing the highlights on the broadcast that night. But for us, we really challenged ourselves to how do we want to approach this as a brand? So, we had a legal expert every day with the latest for the broadcast, we were doing various articles online to really break down the case and what it all meant. And we also started livestreaming the trial on our YouTube page, which we saw a lot of success with. And I think it really established us as a go-to source of information if you were interested in this news.
Johnny Depp turned out to be the goose who laid many a golden egg.
It definitely was something our audience was very interested in.
You came to your role through the digital platform, on which I understand you oversaw a pretty big overhaul. What did you do there to bring it more in line in terms of where audiences had gone?
Well, when I first started at ET we really didn’t have much of a digital presence at all, which I just saw as a huge opportunity for us, because ET has always been the industry leader, the industry standard on great celebrity interviews and coverage of entertainment news. For me, I was just confused on why we were just stopping with our broadcasts every night. I was seeing the raw footage and what we had.
I mean, when we do a television show, we have such a limited amount of time, but on digital we can go in so many more different directions and really let those interviews play out. So, for me, it was just recognizing the great materials that we had and making sure that it was going to a place where our audience could see it. And then it was really working with the broadcast leaders at the time of making ET like more than just the television show. It was really running it as a brand.
Where is it iterating now on various social platforms?
Where is the show iterating now? We’ve been growing our Instagram audience and really approaching Instagram as its own microsite. For us, it’s not thinking about holding news back from our social platforms. It’s getting it out there right away. If we have a breaking news moment, getting that Instagram post up first and accurate and with a great photo is just as important to us as, you know, getting it up on the website and just as important for us as changing our television show to reflect that.
On the YouTube side, we’ve been having a lot of success there. And for us on the YouTube side, it’s also about really leveraging our vault and the great richness that is 42 years of amazing celebrity interviews. So that when these breaking news moments happen, you know, diving into the vault to add rich context to what we’re talking about because we’ve been with these stars for so long and oftentimes maybe what they told us, you know, six months ago, knowing what we know now, it provides additional context to what’s happening in the present.
Instagram is such a closed platform and obviously what you do there is conducive in a content sense, but it’s also really hard to have any outbound links to your own digital properties. Is that ever problematic for you?
I mean, it’s a business at the end of the day, of course. And, you know, we are certainly looking at like revenue coming in. But I’m of the mindset of you can’t be successful these days without having, you know, good Instagram and being a site that people, you know, being a place that people want to come and interact with. So, I’m not I mean, with the risk of my bosses being concerned about the statement, I’m not super concerned about the fact that we’re not making money on Instagram, because I think that will eventually evolve. I’m more concerned with what are we doing on the platform? Are we doing our best work that we can possibly do right now? What are we learning about that platform and then how we applying that knowledge?
Your own digital experience stretches back before ET. You worked on cross-platform marketing promotional campaigns for Ellen, Live with Kelly and Michael, The Dr. Oz Show, Arsenio Hall all before you came to ET, and it does seem and you’re making the case for this now that a successful syndicated show needs to now have very well-calibrated digital social media strategies to maintain this sort of primacy on air. Is it part of your role to sort of be the concert master here to bring all of this together? It’s not just EPing the show, but it’s really overseeing the interconnectedness of integrations and all these platforms.
Definitely, my job is very much kind of more of like a general manager. But at this point, we’re really, you know, thinking about when we get an opportunity to go and interview a star, we’re sitting down and having meetings across all of our platforms about like what our goals are with that interview, once the interview happens, how are we breaking this out? How are we rolling it out across platforms 100%? It is definitely like running like a bit of an orchestra.
And are you versioning for each of the different platforms and sort of driving people there — if you like this and you should come over here and watch this, this extra bit kind of thing?
I think it’s important to meet audiences where they are. And I think if you’re teasing people to death and constantly asking them to go off that platform to go to another one, you run the risk of potentially annoying them. But we’re certainly trying to have the best content everywhere so that we are getting as much cross-platform traffic as we as we can get. But we’re also not strategizing by constantly telling the people on who are finding us on Instagram that if you want to know what this person has to say about this, you have to tune into the television show. I think that that’s really like a short-term strategy that’s not going to serve you in the long term.
I mentioned at the top that ET evidently has the first Black duo hosting a newsmagazine on TV. Where is the show in terms of its diversification efforts and goals right now?
We are very much trying to produce a show that is for everyone, where a brand is for everyone. We’re just covering great stories. And I think, you know, certainly having an eye on the diversity of those stories is important. We want to make sure that we are mindful of the voices that we’re covering every day. We want to we want to be a platform for everybody.
You mentioned at the beginning of this conversation that you consider it more of a brand than a TV show, which is a pretty serious paradigmatic shift in a lot of TV. People might have trouble wrapping their minds around that. Was that difficult? Was that a hard sell internally to get people on side with that kind of mentality?
Honestly, I have had really great support up and down with our executives on what I want to do with this brand and where we’re going. It’s really been a message that I’ve been preaching since I got here, so I have had a few years going with that same message before I was put into the EP chair. I think that they were pretty well versed in what my strategy was going to be once I got into this role. But yeah, they’ve been really supportive of it.
So, Season 42. What can we expect up ahead that may surprise and delight us this time around?
Well, I’m certainly delighted by the fact that the pandemic seems to be waning. So, certainly less Zoom interviews, more in-person interviews. We’re very excited to continue to travel the show to unique destinations, to really give audience a taste of that. We certainly know that when they’re coming to the television show, they’re looking for more of a kind of escape type of experience. You know, it’s a minute, too, to take a breath from their really busy day. So, we’re really thinking about that when we’re programing the show.
We’re trying to make it something that is a reason to sit down and watch versus reading an article about similar stories. So, we’ll be traveling the show a lot. We’re going to literally be on every continent except for Antarctica in the first two months of this show. But we’ll work on Antarctica while we’re at it.
Not a lot of red carpeting in Antarctica.
Not a lot. But, you know, when they do it, we’re going to be first to be there. Certainly, we want to be the show that’s with the stars. I think that’s really important. There’s a lot of people out there who say that they cover entertainment news, but they’re not actually with the celebrities. And we’re still that brand who’s always right there front and center with the stars that our audience are big fans of.
OK, well, that’s all the time we’ve got. So, thank you, Erin Johnson, for joining me to talk about Entertainment Tonight. The 42nd season of the show kicks off on September 12. You can watch past episodes of Talking TV — and there are so many of them now — on the Talking TV and TVN Videos pages on TVNewsCheck.com, and keep that site open all day long for continuously updated information about this industry. And you can also find us on YouTube where Entertainment Tonight may have just hit 1 billion views for 2022, but Talking TV is just trailing slightly behind. And believe me, Erin Johnson is nervously looking over her shoulder at us. So, I invite you to like and follow us there so we can finally give ET a run for its money. Thank you for watching and listening and see you next time.