Why 'TMZ' Just Might Work

The first time I heard that Warner Bros. was planning to adapt AOL’s celebrity-gossip Website, TMZ, into a syndicated daily television show, I nearly sprained my eyes from rolling them.*

C’mon, I thought. TMZ? The bottom-most bottom-feeder in the moral abyss that is the celebrities-behaving-badly beat? Where the sound of Michael Richards delivering an on-stage racist rant is like a Bach concerto to the ears of TMZ Managing Editor Harvey Levin?

But if TMZ is right at home on the ocean floor, it’s far from alone.

Swim around down there these days, and you’ll see pretty much every media outlet—and a lot of consumers trolling for whichever Website or TV show offers the latest Lindsay Lohan mugshot or images (pixilated or not) of Britney Spears’ private parts.

“I think we are the mainstream media,” says Levin, who will executive-produce Telepictures’ TMZ, which premieres this fall. “Or the mainstream media has come to us.”

And while most media outlets try to play both sides of the Paris Hilton game—cover her enough to get the audience while trying to appear above it all—the TMZ operation is unapologetic.

“I don’t apologize for doing Paris Hilton,” Levin claims. “[People] don’t just want to hear about Iraq; they want to hear about a different rack.”

Mammary jokes aside, Levin is right. If the show truly sticks to that unabashed nature, it might just work. Whether they admit it or not, people want to see this stuff. I know I do (for business purposes only, of course).

The show’s executives say TMZ will mirror the site in that it won’t kneel at the altar of publicists, cover red-carpet arrivals or attend junkets. That way, it will be free to cover what it wants when it wants, so long as it’s about celebrity wipeouts.

There will be inevitable pressure on Warner Bros.—as well as on Fox, whose stations will air the show—from celebs who don’t like the way they are treated.

But if the show softens its edge and becomes a poor man’s Entertainment Tonight, it’ll be gone faster than Lohan’s driver’s license. And in this age of consolidation, not many celebs could afford to shun both Warner and Fox for very long. The TMZ brand has established itself online as the place many people either first hear about celebrity hijinks or dash to for more info when they hear about it elsewhere.

I never realized it had that status in my mind until this July, when I was watching The View (don’t ask) and the lovable yentas mentioned Lohan’s DUI arrest. Without thinking, I flipped on my computer and brought up TMZ.com to see what the deal was.

But while that reputation has made TMZ a must-read Website, making the format work as a TV show won’t be easy. The Website is a wire service of quick news items and short video blurbs, almost an anti-TV show in this attention-span–challenged era.

TMZ will try to re-create that fast-paced feel and avoid being a watered-down version of the site.

It will originate from TMZ’s newsroom on Hollywood’s Sunset Strip, not from a studio set. Viewers of news and entertainment shows are already used to seeing Levin’s mug reporting from that setup as a frequent guest. So Levin, a former legal reporter for KCBS Los Angeles who also executive-produced CelebrityJustice, will front the show and be the main on-air personality.

TMZ will still break news on the site as opposed to holding scoops for the show. And the show will also have updates for later airings.

Hilary Estey McLoughlin, president of Telepictures, says TMZ is “the most sought-after show we’ve come up with in a long time.”

That means people probably will watch. Whether or not they admit it when it comes time to fill out their Nielsen diaries—that’s another story.

(*This blog originally ran in B&C’s Syndication & Distribution column in the 7/30 issue.)

By Ben Grossman