AN APOLOGY TO HARVEY LEVIN
When TMZ on TV started in 2014 I predicted it would fail because it would offend the Hollywood’s awards, event and PR gatekeepers. I was wrong.
Harvey Levin has reason to laugh as he hosts the TMZ spinoff show "TMZ Live" in June 2016 with Charles Latibeaudiere
Back in 2007 I wrote a column for The Hollywood Reporter about all the reasons a then new show called TMZ could not succeed. On Monday, Warner Bros. renewed Harvey Levin’s show through 2020.
I was wrong. So I want to apologize to Harvey Levin.
At the time of the launch Levin got on the phone with me and tried to explain why what he was doing was outside the box of everything else on television until that time. I argued that without a working relationship with publicists, awards show big wigs and studio moguls, TMZ won’t be able to get the video, access, PR feeds and stories to sustain a show.
Harvey told me it didn’t matter. I argued it did. He was right.
What I hadn’t factored in was that the digital age changes everything. As TV viewers we have gone from the limited world of three networks to the new age of 500 channels and billions of websites, along with streaming, podcasting and much more. Today a show can find an audience advertisers will pay to reach without having to win over the universe of viewers.
I also didn’t factor in how technology could drive TMZ into the fast lane. Thanks to small new video cameras of good quality, one person replaced the old three-man crew (talent, cameraman, soundman).
TMZ didn’t need no damn stinking badges from Oscar HQ, or permission from Julia and George’s personal publicists, or a friend at Universal or Fox. They knew where to get what would appeal to their youthful snarky distrustful short-attention-span audience.
TMZ’s brilliance was in hiring a bunch of young people (reporters?) to stand outside of nightclubs and other venues where the name stars gathered, making sure they were hip to all the latest gossip and rumors, and then popping quick questions as they emerged half in the bag, and waited for their car.
The stars, it turns out (with exceptions) are often gullible enough to shoot their mouths off about random subjects that can be turned into headline grabbing click bait.
Remember that TMZ started as a website and then Harvey got the funding from Warner Bros to grow it into a show. And now it has spawned a number of spinoff shows, as well as the Hollywood tour (which they recently took in-house).
TMZ continues to spinoff more shows. For instance in 2014 it launched TMZ Sports on Reelz (after nurturing the concept as a website). A year later it added TMZ Sports on Fox Sports 1.
That doesn’t mean the stars, athletes, politicians or their publicists like TMZ. Many hate it. They say that TMZ is looking for the angle that will put a celebrity in the worst light. They say it focuses obsessively on certain stars just because they generate a lot of headlines for their failings (paging Lindsay Lohan, anyone named Kardashian).
There are also complaints about Levin and TMZ paying for stories, which they deny. Levin will admit that they pay for “story tips” as well as photos and video, but adds that all stories are checked before going public.
Harvey Levin in 2014 announcing TMZ Sports on the Reelz Channel, with the spin off shows Executive Producer and host Evan Rosenblum. The point is not to cover the athletes activities on the field but rather the lifestyle it provides and their personal business. Over the years TMZ played a key role in scandalous stories about football star Ray Rice and former L.A. Clippers owner Don Sterling
Levin has used his legal knowledge brilliantly. He has created a network of contacts across the state and federal court system who bird dog celebrity related law suits and quickly get them to TMZ in return for one of those tip fees. It has been the source of big stories like the Mel Gibson drunken driving case where the actor made anti-semetic remarks and more.
Knowing the law also became a basis for TMZ’s best-known tactic – the celebrity grab interview. Levin told me back in 2007 that the public sidewalk in front of a nightclub is for public use, and his crews can stand there and wait for the stars to stumble out of the dark club into the bright lights, cameras in their face.
However, some critics take TMZ to task for the aggressive questions and chasing celebrities to capture exploitable video. They compare it to the kind of unacceptable, occasionally illegal paparazzi stalking of the type that led to the death of Princess Diana, among others.
There have even been calls for a boycott. That must have Harvey smiling. History has shown that attempts to boycott a TV show by pressure groups often have the opposite effect of the one intended. One example is the 1989 protest of the then nascent Fox Broadcasting’s off beat situation comedy show Married With Children driven by a Michigan housewife, who was an anti-obscenity activist. After she did her thing the show’s ratings went through the roof.
TMZ may look down and dirty, and may appeal to alienated street people more than the rich set it covers, but it appears to be quite lucrative. It began as a joint venture of Levin, Telepictures Productions, and AOL, promising a gossipy show that would have youth appeal. It was designed to feed what its creators called the public’s insatiable appetite for stars.
One of the architects of the program was Jim Paratore, a talented executive and creative producer who passed away in 2012.
While it isn’t an owner, Fox, through its New York City-based station group, has also played a seminal role in the creation and success of TMZ. The first TV show began with a summer test by Fox in half a dozen markets and led to a full launch on Fox TV stations nationwide. The audience it attracts is the one Fox wants – young, acquisitive heavy TV watchers who hunger to know more about celebrity culture.
Telepictures became part of Warner Bros. parent Time Warner, as did AOL. When AOL was spun off as an independent company, TMZ stayed with Warner Bros. Television.
Estimates of what TMZ earns for Time Warner annually now exceed $25 million a year. Levin as a part owner also does nicely. His personal wealth has been conservatively estimated at over $15 million.
Harvey Levin and his brand have become one in the public mind
Harvey still works at his side job as the guy who does the wraparounds for People Court, but he has moved beyond media personality to mogul and pop culture figure.
“I am a lawyer,” intones his signature at the end of each show, “and he has built his case for success.”
So Harvey, forgive me for being the one with a lack of foresight. What you have done is revolutionary, because it turned the system on its head but still found a huge audience. Few understood how to use the digital window of opportunity as well as you did, even if it did make the world more rude and crude, down and dirty. All the stuff millions tune in to see.