LOS ANGELES (Hollywood Reporter) - There's five million reasons "Entertainment Tonight" was willing to part with Mary Hart.
Five million dollars is the astronomical sum the iconic anchor was making in her 29th year at the entertainment news show. Hart accepted a pay cut -- which one informed source says amounted to 50% -- in May for one final season. She last struck a multiyear contract renewal with "ET" in 2006.
CBS Television Distribution (CTD) declined comment.
It's a reflection of the declining fortunes of TV's syndication business, where reductions in advertising revenue, ratings and license fees obtained from station groups are bound to make superstar salaries a rarity.
"It would be naive to believe that even the most marquee shows aren't experiencing some retrenchment or at best maintaining status quo," said Bill Carroll, a syndication market expert with Katz Media Group.
The departure of Hart, who announced Thursday that the coming season would be her last on "ET," has kicked up speculation that Lara Spencer, host of another CTD property, "The Insider," would take her place.
Whether Hart left of her own volition or was nudged out the door, the economics that made her impossible to keep on start at the local TV station level, which is coming off a few brutal years that saw revenues drained by the recession.
The annual 5% license-fee increases conglomerates like CBS could once count on from station groups no longer remain feasible. With stations increasingly unwilling to pay, syndicators are forced to cut or maintain license fees or risk losing their time slot in "prime access," the 7-8 p.m. slot second only to primetime in revenue riches.
With license fees drained and ad revenues declining, shows like "ET" are forced to cut their own costs. Like most syndicators, CTD has been cutting costs the past few years; "ET" recently let go of longtime New York bureau chief Michelle Becker, and other positions have been trimmed.
It also doesn't help that CTD will soon no longer have "The Oprah Winfrey Show" in its already impressive stable of properties including "Dr. Phil," "Judge Judy" and "Jeopardy!" That decreases the leverage CTD has over stations, noted Carroll. "CBS is still very formidable, but when you don't have Oprah, I'm sure that has some impact," he said.
Winfrey herself is said to have left syndication for the same diminished returns that likely impacted Hart's fortunes. With stations unable to pay the kind of license fees that supported her in the past, other markets -- like Discovery's upcoming cable co-venture with her -- become more lucrative opportunities.
Hart's departure now clears the way for Spencer. But while from a cost perspective that would make perfect sense, any guarantee CBS would have made to Spencer could set up the conglomerate up for the kind of succession mess that enveloped NBC Universal with Jay Leno and Conan O'Brien. That's because while "ET" has stabilized somewhat in recent years after decades of the kind of ratings drop affecting most TV properties in an increasingly fragmented marketplace, "Insider" isn't holding up as well.
Despite having the relatively solid "ET" as a lead-in in many markets, "Insider" has dropped every year in every key demographic since the 2006-07 season, according to Nielsen Media Research. The year-over-year dips from 2009-10 vs. the previous season range from 6% in total viewers to 20% in the 18-34 demographic. By the same measures, "ET" is up 3% in total viewers and flat in among 18-34s.
Plugging Spencer into a slot occupied by Hart could essentially mean inserting someone who is a lesser ratings draw. It's akin to the predicament NBC found itself in when Leno left "The Tonight Show" while still dominant in the late-night time period, only to watch O'Brien lose significant ground (though Leno didn't exactly help at 10 p.m.).
Ultimately, Hart's longevity may have become something of a liability. While she's a household name with older viewers, that brand recognition means less to the younger viewers who are more valuable to advertisers. Hart has been criticized for epitomizing the gushy, gauzy style from which most shows of all stripes have been trying to steer clear.
On that note, The Hollywood Reporter has learned "Insider" has decided to move away from the panel-discussion style it had employed the past season and return to a more traditional two-anchor format.
Nevertheless, the format of entertainment news shows has also become decreasingly reliant on the anchors themselves. Hart and her co-anchors have seen their airtime eaten into over the years by innovations in set design and graphics that have become more prevalent.
Five million dollars was already a lot for someone who is essentially just reading off a teleprompter, but even more ridiculous when there were fewer words to be read.
"ET" and "Insider" are locked in at CBS' owned-and-operated stations through the 2011-12 season, and negotiations are ongoing to secure another renewal.