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NEW YORK — The list of exiting TV personalities seems to lengthen every day: Oprah Winfrey; Regis Philbin; Larry King; Katie Couric; Jim Lehrer; Meredith Vieira.
Don’t overlook Mary Hart, whose last “Entertainment Tonight” broadcast is Friday. Celebrity and entertainment coverage has changed markedly since she began anchoring the show in its first year in 1982.
It was the first weekday syndicated show devoted solely to entertainment news when it began, and has remained at the top of the ratings as similar shows came along. And “ET” as it is fondly known, remains one of the top sources for celeb news among the many other shows, websites, magazines and news outlets now covering the subject.
“She will be missed,” said Bill Carroll, an expert in the syndicated television market for Katz Media. “She has become iconic.”
Hart earned a hug from David Letterman and her own “Late Show” Top Ten list last week: “Things Mary Hart Has Learned in 29 Years of Hosting ‘Entertainment Tonight.’” (No. 4: “Tom Hanks is a total loser,” as the camera cut to tape of a befuddled Hanks. No. 1 was: “Nothing.”)
Hart, a former Miss South Dakota and now 60, has worked with five male co-hosts, most notably John Tesh and currently Mark Steines. Nancy O’Dell will replace her.
“I’d been thinking about this for a very long time knowing it would be difficult and it is difficult,” Hart said. “It’s a very strange feeling knowing that I’m doing a final show and actually saying goodbye on the air. It makes me very emotional at times.”
Hart said she never intended to be on the show that long but liked the people with whom she worked and it was a good job to have for her and her marriage to producer Burt Sugarman, and their son.
Now, she said, “If I want to do something else, I have to do it now. I can’t wait.” She’s not sure what she’ll be doing — it might include television, it might not.
“When I look back and see the preponderance of reality TV and all these types of shows, it makes me think I don’t want to be in television anymore,” she said.
Hart is proud of her show’s pioneer status and its ability to stay on top, and suggests it’s not as fluffy as some critics assume it to be.
She also knows what shows such as hers have wrought.
“I find that celebrities are not as forthcoming as they used to be, because they are pulled in every direction,” she said. The Internet has loosened standards about reporting and verification, she said, and added a nastiness in tone. “Entertainment Tonight” had its own problems three years ago after falsely reporting that Angelina Jolie had given birth to twins despite being told the report was a hoax.
Then there was the sad feeding frenzy around Charlie Sheen.
“We didn’t even go after an interview with Charlie Sheen,” she said. “We didn’t have to. He was everywhere.”
Hart’s show “was ahead of its time, and depending on how you feel about it, that’s a good or a bad thing,” said Robert Thompson, director of the Center for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University.
Two of the stories that stick to Hart personally through the years would have been perfect fodder for “Entertainment Tonight”: her million-dollar legs and the odd 1991 incident where a medical journal reported that the sound of Hart’s voice triggered seizures in an epileptic woman, which inspired a “Seinfeld” episode.
Hart reports on the world of celebrity culture but is clearly part of it herself.
Take those legs — so impressive that “Entertainment Tonight” put her behind a glass desk with special lighting so viewers wouldn’t miss them.
“When I’m wearing pants and walking across a hotel lobby, people would say, ‘Why aren’t you showing off those legs?’” she said. “It is a little jarring. Still, I get a kick out of it. I can’t take offense. I have nothing to complain about.”
She’s built up plenty of relationships with the rich and famous from seeing them so many times through the years. She talks about “my friends Maria and Arnold” (that would be Shriver and Schwarzenegger, who just announced a separation) and how she’s talked with Shriver about dealing with life’s transitions.
She’s friendly with singer Marie Osmond, and attended the funeral of Osmond’s son, who committed suicide last year. She learned in confidence that Osmond had reconnected with her first husband but kept it a secret until getting the go-ahead from Osmond to report that the couple had remarried.
“There are times when you have to keep something and respect that friendship,” Hart said.
The time in her job has given Hart a perspective that few in her field can claim.
“I’ve seen people’s attitudes be humble and swell and shrink again because everybody’s career has an ebb and flow to it,” she said. “Thirty years makes you really see that.”