Over the last several years, the coverage of the entertainment business has itself become a huge business. The byproduct of all that coverage is the need to fill more hours with newer stories and fresher faces. The problem is that, in doing so, the expiration date on “freshness” is coming so much faster than it used to.

A friend of mine in Los Angeles just told me a story about a guy from Wisconsin who was visiting Hollywood and talking to some people about movies. One of the Hollywood folks was excited about something involving Vince Vaughn. The guy from Wisconsin, who thought he was pretty knowledgeable about movies, asked, “Who is Vince Vaughn?” All of the Hollywooders were shocked at his ignorance.
Well, the fact of the matter is that Vaughn is a guy who has done some nice acting in a couple of movies, but he’s far from a star by most of America’s definition. He was in the terrific “Swingers” (an indie movie that wasn’t a big hit), and “Lost World: Jurassic Park 2” (but calling that a Vince Vaughn movie is like calling “Godzilla” a Matthew Broderick movie). Along the way, he may also have had a couple of stories in Entertainment Weekly or People or some special attention in a trade paper or two. But the majority of Americans would still ask, “Who?”

Yet the Hollywood hype machine assumes that you know who Vaughn is, because they spend every waking minute thinking about this sort of thing. You, on the other hand, have an actual life, meaning the list of Things You Know goes a long way down before it gets to “Who’s the new actor/hunk?”

Here’s another example.

Get ready for a big splash of publicity for Kate Beckinsale. All together now: “Who is Kate Beckinsale?”. It just so happens that, because I have so much free time, I’ve seen two new movies that she’s in. She was in the barely-seen indie flick “Shooting Fish” (it came and went in about a week — a shame) and is now in the more widely-released “The Last Days Of Disco.” I can see why Hollywood would embrace and promote her. She’s beautiful, she’s perky, she’s a good actress, and she could easily play Courtney Cox’s younger sister. I understand she’s also in a couple of other movies due out this year. But how did an unknown get lead roles in so many movies so quickly?

My friend tells me it works like this: she was acting in one movie and, when the dailies were shown to some studio people, they noticed that she was cute and good. Since Hollywood is desperate to discover and exploit the Next Hot Thing, her agent used that early buzz to get her a part in another movie even before the first one was finished. Then she worked a few weeks on yet another project, and insiders spread the word to other insiders that they liked her, so she got a fourth movie. All of this before her first movie had even been released! Now, it looks like she’s white-hot, because she’s done these four movies in a year, so Premiere magazine does a story on her in their June issue.

It’s at this point that everyone in Hollywood already knows about Kate Beckinsale, and assumes you do, too. Just in case, they book her on a few talk shows, let Mary Hart follow her to the hairdresser, and plant a story in USA Today about her (though not in Larry King’s column…she’s not from Brooklyn and never met his wife). Maybe they get her to do Five Questions with Craig Kilborn.

Kilborn, by the way, fits right into this saga. A year ago, he was an ESPN anchor, then he got hired to do Comedy Central’s “Daily Show,” and next year he’ll take over Tom Snyder’s “Late Late Show” on CBS-TV. The hype machine can’t believe you don’t know who he is. Didn’t you get the memo about Kilborn? Geez, he’s even older news than Vince Vaughn!

There are so many media outlets paying attention to this sort of stuff nowadays that you’d think “fame” would last longer than the proverbial fifteen minutes. Instead, the machine just gets hungrier and hungrier, like Dom DeLuise with a tapeworm, and a lot of its food simply gets swallowed whole. Those fifteen minutes now run concurrently on 30 different channels, and it’s the same thirty-second clip on all of them! And look out if someone in the business dies (see Phil Hartman). Then your clip gets bumped and you sit around waiting for a call from The Food Network.

Anyway, Hollywood’s hype schedule dictates that you’ll know all about Kate by Labor Day. Even if you don’t, they’re already working on the next person to chew up and spit out. The wheels of their publicity machine turn faster than the conveyor belt in Lucy’s chocolate factory.

A-ha! A media reference you’re familiar with! See how long it takes to sink in?