TMZ.com makes jump from online to on-air
By LYNN ELBER, AP Television Writer
Fri Sep 7, 2007
Wander through TMZ.com at any given moment and it's easy to grasp what the Web site is gleefully pushing. There are stars smooching. Stars sunning. Stars looking hot, or not. And, always, there are stars misbehaving.
TMZ broke the news of Mel Gibson's DUI arrest and Michael Richards' comedy-club tirade. Looking for "new pics" about a car crash involving Hulk Hogan's son? Or of Lindsay Lohan in any number of interesting activities? They're here.
It all adds up to the most popular online entertainment site and, starting Monday, a television show. "TMZ," joining the crowded field of entertainment news magazines, will test the bounds of the TV audience's fascination with celebrity.
The new venture also is a groundbreaking bid to turn an online success into an even more lucrative TV commodity, a tantalizing possibility that has yet to be realized.
Harvey Levin, managing editor of TMZ.com and host and executive producer of the syndicated series, says he isn't thinking about being a crossover pioneer. He's just preoccupied with getting "TMZ" going.
"I am so charged right now. ... We've been running test shows for a month now and I just want to put the show on the air," said Levin, a lawyer who became a TV reporter, commentator and producer ("Celebrity Justice," "The People's Court").
"TMZ," which will be carried on Fox-owned stations as well as on a mix of other network outlets, is to air as a half-hour show on weekdays (mostly within the 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. window) and in an hourlong version on the weekend.
When TMZ.com launched in November 2005 as a joint venture of Telepictures Productions and Time Warner Inc.'s AOL, it was with the intent of eventually translating it to TV, said Hilary Estey McLoughlin, president of Telepictures.
TMZ.com's success was the prerequisite. According to comScore Media Metrix, it's the leading celebrity-news site, with 120 million-plus monthly page views and more than 9 million unique visitors.
(The name is based on the phrase "thirty mile zone," coined in the 1960s for a part of Los Angeles used for location shooting and subject to studio production rules.)
"TMZ" the show is "an important launch for us and a great way to tout that you can brand new projects other than on television and succeed," McLoughlin said. "Part of our strategy is to incubate all kinds of formats and talents and bring them to television."
Jim Paratore, the former Telepictures president who launched TMZ.com and who's producing the TV series with Levin, said they are "trying to do what others are, find the voice that crosses over" from online to on-air.
The program has a good shot at making it, said Bill Carroll, an expert in syndication for Katz Television.
"In a million years, I never would have believed that the national conversation would have been Paris, Britney and Lindsay," Carroll said. "No organization is better at covering that than TMZ. If they can take the tongue-in-cheek sensibility that the Web site has and translate it to broadcast, I'd be very surprised if it's not a success."
It's an interesting test case, said David Card, senior analyst at JupiterResearch.
Whether a show can be launched from a Web site "and then make money and get big audiences" has yet to be seen, Card said. But, he added, "I can't believe it won't happen."
Lew Leone, general manager of WNYW Fox 5 in New York, figures he has solid evidence that "TMZ" will prove a hit for his station.
"I get all the gossip magazines at work, and I get in trouble with my wife if I don't bring them home," Leone said. "It's all the same pictures, same people, but she doesn't tire of looking at them over and over. She's probably typical of viewers out there when it comes to celebrities."
He's also enthusiastic about what's packaged with "TMZ": visitors to WNYW's news Web site can find breaking stories from TMZ.com and promos for the show, which is being distributed by Warner Bros. Domestic Television.
"It will work for us, it will work for TMZ.com and it will work for the show. I think it's a very powerful way to launch a show and to reach an audience," Leone said.
The competition for "TMZ" includes "Entertainment Tonight," the elder statesman of the Hollywood news shows, along with "The Insider," "Access Hollywood" and, also from Telepictures, "Extra."
"Celebrity Expose," an hour-long weekly program profiling one star at a time, starting with Lohan, debuts Oct. 1 on MyNetworkTV.
Levin is unfazed by the list. In rapid-fire remarks, he asserts that "TMZ" is in a league of its own.
"It doesn't feel like the other shows ... We're not sucking up (to stars). We're not doing junkets. We're not doing red carpets," Levin said.
Humor will be part of the mix because TMZ.com has demonstrated that people enjoy seeing Hollywood covered with irreverence, he said. But he acknowledged that the online vibe — which can veer from snarky to off-color — and that of the show will differ.
"There are obviously things we can do on the Web site that we can't do on TV, and we're not trying to do that. So it's finding the right tone and the right personality," Levin said. "But I know what people want: They want different and they want humor."
Bring it on, said "TMZ's" rivals, including sibling Telepictures entry "Extra," returning for its 14th season Monday.
"The way I look at it, we're in the limo with the stars. They're chasing the limo," said Lisa Gregorisch-Dempsey, "Extra" senior executive producer (and Levin's former colleague on "Celebrity Justice"). "It's a completely different point of view."
Linda Bell Blue, executive producer for "Entertainment Tonight" and "The Insider," adopted an equally confident posture in an e-mailed comment.
"With 26 years under `ET's' belt, we have the best connections in the entertainment business and the best connection with our audience. We're excited that people's interest in celebrity journalism remains very high ...." Bell Blue said.
As yet another show joins the fray, however, consumer fatigue seems to be a possibility.
"I don't see any signs of it. The television marketplace has an insatiable appetite for celebrity news," said Greg Meidel, president of MyNetworkTV.
Offers Gregorisch-Dempsey of "Extra": "All this guilty pleasure stuff that people want to talk about ... they have to get it somewhere."
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