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LEFT COAST BIAS: Confession of a TMZ Junkie

With the National Association of Television Program Executives' conference taking place this week, I wanted to write about a hot new syndicated show. The only problem is, the last big syndicated hit was Dr. Phil, and I'm guessing he's too busy trying to cure Britney to take my phone calls.

So instead, I have a confession to make. My name is Ben Grossman, and I TiVo the TMZ show. Yeah, I'd probably stop reading right about here, too.

But here's the thing: TMZ as a TV show was an idea so bad it just might have worked. And it has. The syndicated offshoot of the popular celebrity-stalking Web site hasn't had stellar ratings in its first season, but it has found a niche, and that's something these days. (Indeed, TMZ reaches 98% of the country, with 190 markets sold.)

I remember the 2007 NATPE press conference announcing the show. Afterward, I walked straight to the sports book and begged them to let me put two large on the show dying within two months.

But after watching entertainment news coverage evolve (or devolve), by the fall, I wrote a column entitled “Why TMZ Just Might Work.” I said if it stuck unapologetically to not just poking Hollywood with a stick but jamming it with a taser, it could find an audience.

And it has, and therein lies its bold-faced appeal. When bikini-clad actress Jennifer Love Hewitt was ridiculed recently for looking like -- heaven forbid -- she actually ate more than one meal a day, she was defended by the adoring press.

Not TMZ. When paparazzi shot her getting her nails done, the on-air voice-over sniped, “She looks great ... granted, she is sitting down.” Ouch.

So last week I spent a day with TMZ chiefs Harvey Levin and Jim Paratore to see the method behind the celebrity-bashing madness.

In the edit bays, you get what they're going after -- a clip show of D-level celebrities doing something entertaining, coupled with A-list celebrities doing pretty much anything.

The show's clips are mostly just celebs walking from cars to restaurants. And that's when the TMZ attitude has to make the show.

But Levin and company get the joke that on most days they aren't solving the world's problems. On this day, they're simply trying to solve which on-air image should come first: a topless photo of Mariah Carey or a clip of Amy Winehouse apparently smoking a crack pipe. How do you coach that decision in a journalism class, I wonder?

But an hour later, things do get serious in Levin's office. Harvey gets a tip that actor Heath Ledger has been found dead in New York.

Levin sprints to the newsroom and he and his acolytes go Defcon 5. From an elevated workstation, Levin works the phones himself, pausing only to bark at staffers to post the story on the Web (they proudly beat Page Six by one minute) and to get a camera to the scene.

He tapes a quick piece that editors will cram into the opening of that day's show, making the later feeds that run in markets like New York and Los Angeles.

And the chase is on for details. There is a rumor that Ledger was with an Olson twin the night before. A producer yells it was whichever one wasn't at Sundance. Literally more than 10 voices yell back, “Ashley.” Wow, these people know their emaciated former child stars.

And that is the key to why TMZ truly works. They hammer Hollywood, but also cover it with knowledge and precision.

And much like scrolling through, the instant-gratification generation can fast-forward through what they wish and watch the show in about five minutes on TiVo.

“It's like the Daily Show to news,” Paratore said of the show's attitude. “This is how people want their information now.”

Short, loud and often cynical and angry. I either just described myself or why TMZ as a TV show works. 

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