It was a striking example of Hollywood protecting its own: After an aggressive lobby from powerful film industry figures, "Entertainment Tonight" decided against airing a video that shows the late Heath Ledger hanging out at a party where drugs were being taken.
The show said it pulled the story "out of respect for Heath Ledger's family." But don't discount the effect of a lightning-fast campaign launched by a public relations firm that represents many of the stars "Entertainment Tonight" depends upon for stories.
Even some celebrities themselves _ Natalie Portman and Sarah Jessica Parker, to name a couple _ called to urge "ET" to pull the plug.
"Entertainment Tonight" is hardly the lone news organization to broach the topic of potential drug abuse by the star. But the video it acquired, reportedly taken two years ago at a party at the Chateau Marmont Hotel, drew the fiercest attention.
The syndicated magazine's sister show, "The Insider," aired a "preview" of the story that it had planned to run Thursday that actually showed several segments of the video. Following the protest, "The Insider" yanked the segment from the West Coast version of its telecast.
Ledger is seen standing in the doorway of a room where the party was taking place, swigging from a beer bottle. The actor is heard saying that he was "going to get serious (word bleeped) from my girlfriend" for being at the party.
The show made clear that there was nothing on the video showing Ledger taking any drug. At one point, however, the then-26-year-old said he "used to smoke five joints a day."
But a person who has seen the entire video, who asked not to be identified because of its sensitive nature, said Ledger then points to his tattoo of "M" (for his daughter, Matilda Rose) and says, "this is to remind me never to smoke weed again." That part of the quote was not used in Wednesday's preview.
Later, with Ledger in the background, an unidentified man, his face blurred, seems to snort cocaine from a table.
After seeing a promotion for the show Wednesday, a publicist at ID, Ledger's public relations firm, called "Entertainment Tonight" and asked that the segment be pulled. The request was refused.
ID then composed a three-paragraph protest letter that it distributed to some 30 other public relations firms around Hollywood, asking them to tell their clients about what was about to happen. The circle included powerhouse publicists like PMK-HBH, 42 West and BWR.
The letter said "ET" had paid a large sum of money for the video to stir up an exploitive story about Ledger.
"For the sake of his grieving family and friends, his child and common decency, we hope to pressure `Entertainment Tonight' and `The Insider' to do the right thing and pull the spot," the letter said. "This is not journalism, it is sensationalism. It is a shameful exploitation of the lowest kind, to a talented and gentle soul, undeserving of such treatment."
Stars, studio executives and PR firms all called "ET" to register protests, said Kelly Bush, CEO of ID. The star-studded roster of Bush's firm alone includes Robin Williams, Sean Penn, Tobey Maguire, Mike Myers, Jennifer Hudson, Katie Holmes, Ellen DeGeneres, and Ledger's "Brokeback" co-star Jake Gyllenhaal.
Bush said the response was unlike anything she'd ever seen.
"I hope it represents a turning point," she said. "I think we have all heard from members of the media and members of the public that it's too much. Britney Spears and Paris Hilton are the top news stories when Darfur should be."
No boycott was threatened, she said. But when a television show that needs celebrities like living things need oxygen hears from so many powerful sources, a threat probably wasn't necessary.
Not a spoken one, anyway.
"We need them as much as they need us," Bush said. She wouldn't speculate on what made "Entertainment Tonight" change its mind, but said "they've probably never gotten this much heat before over anything."
Executives at "Entertainment Tonight" refused to talk publicly about the retreat. There was some bewilderment and anger at the company about why its show was singled out when many other publications and TV outlets were talking about the same thing. The party video is likely to be seen soon in England, and is already available over the Internet.
But "ET" can't complain about getting nothing for its money. Even though it was called a "preview," "The Insider" already aired a significant story with salient portions of the video, while maintaining the appearance of having taken the high road in the end.
Drew Pinsky, star of VH1's "Celebrity Rehab With Dr. Drew," backed "Entertainment Tonight." He saw the video and was quoted by the show, calling it "heartbreaking."
"When a 28-year-old seemingly healthy man, whom we love and respect, dies suddenly, there is a reason," Pinsky said. "His death plays upon our deepest fears. We owe it to the public to try to answer the question why. I am convinced that if this heart-wrenching video had aired, it would have gotten through and had a positive effect on young people in America. Perhaps it could have even saved some lives."
Also unanswered are questions about how much the Hollywood friends who jumped to Ledger's defense this week knew about any drug use while he was alive, and what they had done to help him. Few of the people close to Ledger have come forth with statements since his death, and those who have chose not to broach the topic of any possible drug use.
One notable exception was Lee Daniels, who produced "Monster's Ball," in which Ledger starred.
"The definition of substance abuse is really up to one's perspective," Daniels told The Associated Press last week. "I didn't see him as a drug addict. I saw him as someone who enjoyed life. I know drug addicts; he was not a drug addict."