In Depth

‘TMZ’ Turns a TV Genre on Its Head

In its second season, Warner Bros. Domestic Television Distribution’s “TMZ” has been able to make its presence felt in the competitive genre of entertainment newsmagazine shows. Currently, “TMZ” is third in the genre in household ratings behind newsmagazine juggernaut “Entertainment Tonight” and “Inside Edition.”

What’s “TMZ’s” secret? Attract viewers that newsmagazines have forgotten about: young males. TelevisionWeek reporter Andrew Krukowski talked with editor-in-chief and “TMZ” co-executive producer Harvey Levin about his show being the new kid on the block, what other programs are picking up from “TMZ” and how “TMZ” is like Barack Obama.

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TelevisionWeek: TMZ is in its second season in syndication. Can you talk a little bit about what you feel TMZ’s impact on the newsmagazine genre has been, even in its infancy?

Harvey Levin: Well, I think the TV show is a lot different from the other shows. I’m not even sure I would call our show a magazine show, because it’s really not. We are kind of the X-Games, I think, of the celebrity genre. And we’re not really trying to be a magazine show—we’re just not.

We may cover some of the same material, but it’s just a fundamentally different show. I mean, we don’t do agenda stuff, we don’t do red carpets, we don’t do junkets—we cover celebrities in a real and real fun way. And that’s really the mission here. We’re not covering the world of entertainment, we’re covering celebrities who are entertaining. And that can be A-list celebrities, Z-list celebrities, everybody in between, but it is kind of a fun take on Hollywood and New York and all the people that have celebrities.

TVWeek: I talked with (“TMZ” co-executive producer) Jim Paratore, and he seemed to be under the impression that other newsmagazine shows are picking up elements of “TMZ’s” style. Do you feel the same way?

Mr. Levin: Oh, they are. It’s very clear that a lot of the traditional entertainment magazine shows are now doing things that we do, that we’ve done in a Web site, that we’re doing on the television show. I think in some ways, publicists ran Hollywood for a long time before we came along, and what they would do is basically they would set the agenda, they would set the topics, they would tell a lot of these magazine shows what they can and cannot do and that’s simply the case.

And you know I think the power they had was to say, “Look, we won’t give you the interviews you really want unless you play ball with us,” and those interviews were important enough that these shows would say OK.

We don’t do interviews with stars. We don’t sit down and talk to them …about movies. We’re going to do honest fair stories that are fun, but the publicists realize that they can’t really control us in the way they control the other shows, and I think the other shows are kind of struggling now to figure out, hey, you know, we need to have that voice. We need to be looser. We need to be honest about what it is that’s going on, and I think you’ve seen a shift in the kinds of stories that they’re covering. … I mean, it’s just a reality. When you watch them, you see that evolution.

TVWeek: What needs to be considered in taking something like “TMZ” on the Web and then adapting it for television?

Mr. Levin: You can’t jam a Web site on TV, nor can you jam a television show and throw it on a Web site and make it successful. When we started the Web site, the notion was never to say, let’s take a TV show and put it in a Web site. I mean, it just wouldn’t work. There are a lot of organizations that have tried that and failed.

You have to really produce for the genre that you’re producing for and the people you’re producing for. And people who look at Web sites don’t digest it the same way they digest television shows. It’s a different experience. I think when we started the Web site we made it really clear we are producing a different form of entertainment, with a different voice, with a different style, with different assets. And then when we turned it into a TV show, it was the same principle, that you can’t just take that Web site and put it on a TV show.

The Web site, our stock in trade, is breaking stories and finding unique angles to stories. You can’t do that on a TV show. I mean the reason the Web site worked is because we don’t have time periods, and we can be urgent, you know, we can be immediate. We can be first. You can’t do it–I mean, we never had a plan to suddenly make the TV show the place where we break stories. That just was never going to happen. It’s the Web site. That’s where we break stories. That’s the essence of the Web site.

So the TV show had to be different. And the TV show was never about let’s break stories, let’s become this news outlet. The TV show was let’s get a fun, interesting, unique take on Hollywood from a lot of the stories we do on the Web site, but contextualize it a little bit more and make it really fun, and that’s what we do on the show. We’re the different voice. We have a different storytelling technique where we use our newsroom and the people in the newsroom to help tell these stories. And I think that does make it different, very different. And the tone of it is different.

TVWeek: What do you attribute your early rating success to? If there is a particular element of the show, what would you say it is?

Mr. Levin: We have pushed the envelope. There has been a safety zone that everybody has played in, in the genre, and I don’t want to be unsafe for sure. But I think the safety zone has always been too narrow. And I think the safety zone has been really exclusionary of men. I think that men have been–they have given up men on all of these shows. I mean, when you start seeing the stars in their Manolos and what they have in the closet, see a man, bye.

And we never surrendered the men. I think men love celebrities who are entertaining, as much as women. And there is an element to that where I mean everybody thinks, ‘Oh my God, if you cater to men you’re going to offend women.’ I think women want to have as much fun as men do. And I think, yeah, everybody has different sensibilities, but I think you can produce for a much broader audience than we’ve seen in the past.

I just think that you can produce more broadly than for just women 34 to 50 or whatever. I think you can go younger and I think you can change it with gender mix. And I think that’s been the success of “TMZ”—we’ve gone for men and women, we’ve gone for younger and older, and I think we’ve made an assumption that the taste level of people who are interested in this stuff is not as restrictive as a lot of people assume.

TVWeek: How do you respond to critics of this envelope-pushing? How do you respond to those complaints that it’s tasteless or goes too far, or is too intrusive?

Mr. Levin: Well, I don’t think we’re intrusive. I mean we are not the bedroom police, never have been. We’re not that on the Web site, we’re not that in the TV show.

I think the show has evolved. Some people have said, ’Oh, you guys pushed it too far,’ and I think there were times, especially in the beginning, when we did. We were experimenting. This is a new show and I think we tried things that worked, and things that didn’t work. We tried to find that voice. Is the show the same today as it was the first day we aired? Absolutely not. I never worked on any show that was even remotely the same a year into it. It should be evolving.

I think we found a voice now that feels really comfortable. It still has an edge to it and sometimes it gets closer to the line, a lot closer to the line. But I feel like we know where that line is, and for us we don’t go over it. I’m sure for some people they say, ‘Ah, you went over the line.’ But you can’t produce for everybody in America and make everybody feel alike. That’s called pabulum.

You gotta figure out where it is that the proper limit is, that makes sense to you, that’s right. Then you’ve got to produce based on your own compass, and you can’t produce by saying, “Oh my God, if we get one e-mail from somebody that says, ‘How dare you,’ that we’ve done something wrong,” I mean, you can’t panic-produce that way.

You find what you feel is right and comfortable and you produce that way knowing that a lot of people are going to like it and some people are going to say, “How dare you.” But you’ve gotta feel right about what you’re doing and assume that you never get everyone. Barack Obama did not get nearly 100% of the vote and he’s president of the United States. And there are a lot of people who hate him. That doesn’t make him bad.

TVWeek: Are you calling “TMZ” the Barack Obama …

Mr. Levin: No (laughs), I’m not calling it the Barack Obama newsmagazine. Though we will cover Barack Obama. But what I’m saying is that nobody wins 100% of anything. And if you try to win 100% of everything, you’re nothing, because you can’t appeal to everyone.