Apr 15, 2020

“We’re not trying to make it look like we're in a studio. There's enough about Hollywood that people think is fake.”

In Making it Work, creatives and decision-makers from across ViacomCBS describe how they turned an idea into a reality.
In this installment, Erin Johnson, executive producer of Entertainment Tonight explains how she and her team report, interview, edit, and produce the 39-year-old entertainment news program five days a week.

Entertainment Tonight isn't a job, it's a lifestyle. We're working all the time. It's even more 24/7 now because we're all trapped at home. You really can't escape it, and getting the show on air takes longer because there are more hoops to jump through. But there was never going to be a scenario where we went off the air. We've worked way too hard and I sure as hell wasn't going to let it end on my watch.

In early March we started working on special, evergreen shows in case an outbreak hit the L.A.-area or someone in the building tested positive for Coronavirus. We came up with two weeks worth of specials. One was about the Hollywood evolution of Brad Pitt since he's coming off this huge awards season. When things took a turn the second week of March we raced to get the specials done because it didn’t look like we’d be able to come into the office anymore. We completed 12 half-hour weekday shows and two hour-long Entertainment Tonight weekend shows. We ran 10 of them. That is a lot of television to make in less than a week.

That time also allowed us to prepare. For example, Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson have their wedding anniversary in April. We knew we’d do something on them, especially since they had Coronavirus and weathered it together. That screams for a piece about their love story. We've interviewed Tom Hanks so many times since 1981. But, it's not just the push of a button, and you see that interview from 1981. We have so much material and a lot of it is stored in a warehouse. We had someone get the tapes, digitize them and put them into the system. If we thought of that idea now, we wouldn't have been able to do it.

Meanwhile, I was supposed to move to a home closer to the office last month, but in a bad twist of fate and timing, everything got delayed because of the coronavirus. I'm staying with friends in their house in the valley, which is nice because I have company. I’m working at a table in the backyard so at least I can get a little bit of sun.

I still wake up around 5:00 a.m. to read the news and see what happened overnight. I make the same dumb joke every day as I walk to the kitchen table, which is, "Hell of a commute." Before I go to bed I watch the next day’s segments that have been taped and edited. The internet works better at certain times of the day, usually in the morning or really late at night. A lot of our editors are working in the evening since they’re parents and it's a lot to balance.

"There was never going to be a scenario where we went off the air. We've worked way too hard and I sure as hell wasn't going to let it end on my watch."

We do a Zoom meeting with our writers at 8:00 a.m. every day. The first thing I ask is, ‘Does anybody have any wins or learnings to share?’ It's such a helpful meeting because people offer suggestions to make their work life easier. And, it's nice to just talk to each other.

I have two amazing co-EPs that I talk to all day. We’re planning the shows into May, because we want to be super prepared. We’re also cutting video much earlier, so if we have an editor who's available, the connection happens to be working really well, we get it into editing even if it’s a piece not running until the end of April.

Every single person on the staff is working 100 percent remotely. Kevin Frazier, the main host of our show, started his career as a photographer for a local news station. He’s using those skills again. He’s shooting his own stand-ups at home, using either his personal DSLR camera or his iPhone. Most of our talent use their iPhones. We ordered $20 tripods for everyone to make the shots stable. Before shooting his segments, we FaceTime or he sends us photos to see what he’s thinking for the show’s backdrop.

Our talent has embraced this and I think they're having fun. And they’re learning tricks that aren't super expensive to make this work. Nischelle Turner did a stand-up in Monday's show where she was out for a walk holding her iPhone. It led in to a story about how Jessica Simpson lost 100 pounds by walking 12,000 steps a day. Keltie Knight recently did a shot holding her. dog, Callie, who was wearing a sweater.

We’re not trying to make it look like we're in a studio. I’ve had a lot of people send me links to green screens available on Amazon that would make it look like we’re in the office. I don't want to do that. We're living this just like our audience. There's enough about Hollywood that people think is fake.

We've had to embrace virtual interviews over Zoom. Two of our field producers put together a one-sheet for celebrities to help position their screens and other technical details. It even has pictures showing how to frame your shot and the best places to sit for ideal light. Technology can be super intimidating and we don't want to lose an interview because someone thinks it would be really hard to do. Their publicists can be in the Zoom meeting too, which goes a long way to making the celebrities feel comfortable. It keeps things consistent even in this new world that we're all living in.

A field producer joins the Zoom interview to take notes and ask additional questions or follow-ups just like we would when we're in the field. Celebrities are embracing it too. Howie Mandel did an ET interview without pants. Just before I got on this call we did a Zoom with Kristen Bell. She gave us this great home tour, walking around while holding the computer monitor to show us where her kids set up their classroom for virtual school. James Corden talked to us about trying to homeschool his kids while also doing his CBS show from his garage.

It's neat to see these celebrities in a different way because this is certainly a great equalizer. And for ET, we're very timely, we're very topical, but we're also a little bit of a relief.


As told to Tara Weiss.

All photos courtesy of Entertainment Tonight. 

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