The Media Equation
LOS ANGELES It is 6:30 in the morning, and a stubborn mist is hanging low over the Hollywood Hills.
This is when TMZ punches in and goes to work making a television show that is beamed out five nights a week to the rest of us, mining our culture’s need to know every single little thing about celebrities.
Syndicated by Fox Broadcasting for the past three years, TMZ the show is recorded in the newsroom of TMZ the Web site, situated on Sunset Boulevard a block from the Chateau Marmont. It is an aggressive purveyor of celebrity news that has been known to uncover (or pay for) scoops that open the kimono on the world of Hollywood.
But unlike Access Hollywood or Entertainment Tonight, TMZ lets viewers in on the joke. Five days a week, its reporters show up at work and the television lights come on above them and five cameras roam overhead as they discuss the “news” of the day. The newsroom is alive and buzzing about — well, let’s face it, nothing very important.
No one pretends that they are covering the war in Afghanistan or the federal debt ceiling. They are covering show business, with an emphasis on the “show.”
It is a pleasure to watch, and a very guilty one at that. But it is also a daily indictment of our outsize fascination with celebrities. We are in on the joke, but we are implicated by it as well.
The Web site and the TV show are overseen by Harvey Levin, TMZ’s founder and overlord.
He runs the Web operation, and, for the purposes of the television show, presides over a newsroom of enthusiastic young reporters and producers. He bounces on his toes as he asks them what can be told that day about the famous and the infamous.
What is remarkable about the show is that it matters little what celebrities have done and not done. It’s hunting them down and sticking a camera in their face that makes for good television. This is a newsroom where the news is often beside the point.
Anyone who has worked in a newsroom will tell you that it is not an intrinsically interesting place. Phone calls. Fact-checking. Meetings. But TMZ makes it tough to look away. Accidentally land on TMZ while surfing though channels and you will, in spite of yourself, get sucked in by that throbbing bass line and the jumpy camera that sees all (and illuminates nothing). Stick around a bit you and you will get sucked in by the voiceover promising you tatty delights right after the break. Coming right up: Ed Begley Jr. at the airport.
I care nothing of Ed Begley and could not name his last project on a bet, but I can’t help myself, sitting with hand poised above the remote, feeling guilty and implicated by my decision to spend quality time with TMZ. I’m not alone. The show has proved wildly popular, feeding off of a Web site that gets 20 million unique visitors a month, according to ComScore.
If there’s a formula for that, it is one that only Mr. Levin seems to know. A lawyer and impresario, he has performed the rather unusual parlor trick of turning a Web site into a television show. A tiny, fat-free ball of energy — he goes to the gym at 4 a.m. before arriving for work — he has no shame, takes no prisoners and loves running the room.
Last Thursday morning, he was holding forth for the cameras and his reporters, clearly suggesting that a newsroom that snacks on celebrities is an extraordinary place to be.
For those who don’t know, or admit to knowing, what TMZ is, it stands for Thirty Mile Zone, the traditional epicenter of Hollywood moviemaking that now produces all that ineffable celebrity heat the rest of us stare at.
TMZ, the Web site, which is owned and operated by Time Warner even though neither brings that up a lot, does not fool around. Midway through the day last Wednesday, Lindsay Lohan, the ground zero of gossip, was in a Los Angeles courtroom, accused of existing while intoxicated. For most of the morning, people in the newsroom were dipping their beaks in on the story and checking with Mr. Levin about how to proceed.
The fact that she failed her urine test for alcohol? Not especially surprising. She is young and impetuous. But TMZ pointed out that while, yes, it was sort of naughty that she was drinking and throwing parties while under house arrest, the judge never stipulated that she had to refrain from alcohol, only controlled substances.
End of story, except on TMZ, the television show. On television, her narrative becomes a fable, a storied look at La Lohan and her sad, inexorable journey to the bottom of our culture. She may end up back in jail (best case) or back in a hospital (bad for her, but good for the story, right?), but it is the hunt, the activity of standing outside the courthouse and watching her make that perp walk, that matters.
“I root for her,” Mr. Levin said during a rare free moment. “She had it rough growing up, really rough.” As he talks, his knee bounces up and down and his cursor moves over the Web site, which is where TMZ breaks news and, sometimes, careers. He seems to care deeply about Lindsay, even as he feeds her into the wood chipper.
During the show and the subsequent editing, Mr. Levin took calls from publicists who represent Big Deal clients. Buy. Sell. Trade. Mr. Levin closed story after story. Yes, he would hold off on one bit if the publicist was willing to show a little leg on something else.
On his desk, a fish named Ribeye swam back and forth in a tiny aquarium taking it all in. Ribeye has 5,000 followers on Twitter, and knows the score. While he doesn’t have an agent, it seems only a matter of time.
Mr. Levin says that TMZ, both the television show and the Web site, is a necessary force.
“It is trite to say so, but TMZ is a brand,” he said. “What happens on the Web is what we really do, but the television show is an attempt to capture that voice. I always thought that our morning meetings were interesting, and now we are letting people have a look at what we do.”
You be the judge. On Thursday, there was an item about Milli Vanilli, and people in the room remarked on the resemblance between the lip-syncing rapper and Charles Latibeaudiere, the show’s co-executive producer who wears mad dreadlocks and a skeptical air. The comments were biting, funny and sort of dead on.
Mr. Latibeaudiere went along with the joke. The camera lingered on him while everyone else had a big laugh. I was sitting by Ribeye at the time, and he seemed into it.
“People tune in because they want to be entertained, they want to be in on the joke, which is great,” Mr. Latibeaudiere said. “But what I don’t think they understand is that when we are finished making the show, every single one of those people has a real job.”
On Thursday, the job was all about Lindsay. And Ribeye. He, too, had a bit on the show — something about his Twitter account and the way he shakes his tail. The difference between a fish swimming on Mr. Levin’s desk and a young woman who paddles her way through the treacherous waters of Hollywood’s celebrity culture seemed to get smaller as the day proceeded.