TMZ Targets TV Newsmagazines

Dec 12, 2005  •  Post A Comment

The popularity of broadband video is giving longtime television producer Harvey Levin new low-cost life online.

Mr. Levin, a veteran of “People’s Court” and the canceled syndicated show “Celebrity Justice,” is now the managing editor of TMZ.com, a new Web site about celebrity news that made its official debut last week.

A joint venture of Telepictures Productions and America Online, TMZ-named after the Thirty Mile Zone around Hollywood-continues the flow of content from television to the Internet and could give the traditional TV entertainment shows a run for their money, Mr. Levin said.

“We are leaner and meaner than any television show. Television shows are going to have a hard time competing with us,” he said.

The economics of producing video for broadband are very different from producing a television show. Telepictures is already looking at more ideas for broadband video, while at the same time considering ways to put TMZ on other platforms, including mobile players and VOD.

In a back-to-the-future twist, the Web site could even be the starting point for a digital cable channel or a TV program.

While it was on the air, “Celebrity Justice” operated on a shoestring budget, with a staff of about 25 people, compared with the 130 or so who work on a show like “Extra,” Mr. Levin said. “This is even more challenging,” he said of TMZ.

About seven people moved over to TMZ from “CJ,” but on the Internet, editorial people have to do technical work and vice versa. “Everyone wears five hats,” he said.

“I’m not going to go into real numbers, but I would say it’s significantly less than half the cost, more like a quarter of the cost,” to put TMZ on the Web compared with “CJ” in syndication, said Jim Paratore, president of Telepictures.

AOL, which handles ad sales for TMZ, has already signed up Chrysler, Hilton Hotels, Revlon and New Line Cinema.

“Our issue has been getting up and running fast enough to meet the advertisers’ demand,” said Mr. Paratore, who projects “a break-even business in a year.”

By comparison, “CJ” was able to build a successful brand, Mr. Paratore said, but because of its lineup of stations and time slots it wasn’t able to monetize its scoops.

Doing TMZ and other online projects has both economic and strategic appeal compared with syndication.

“It is a different distribution outlet, and since we are not a vertically integrated company and don’t own the television stations, our customers are also our competitors,” Mr. Paratore said. “As a result, I’m desperately trying to figure out where are some other alternative distribution opportunities, and clearly the Web makes a lot of sense.”

Once TMZ is up and running, “We’re going to be looking at how to platform it on wireless, and is there a VOD play for some of the video, is there an opportunity to bring it back as a cable channel or a television show or special,” Mr. Paratore said. And Telepictures is looking at other Internet-based opportunities as well. “We have a couple of other ideas but they’re not fleshed out enough to talk about,” he said.

Partnering with AOL, which like Telepictures is part of Time Warner, helps TMZ because of its expertise and online promotion. “From day one, TMZ is not only going to have great content, it’s going to have great traffic,” Mr. Paratore said.

T.S. Kelly, VP and director of research and insight for MPG, said broadband video is attracting more conservative clients into Internet advertising, and that more content companies are jumping in to capture those ad dollars.

TMZ is “obviously a well-packaged, highly stylized piece of content, but it really comes down to the type of audience, either quantity or quality, that they’re able to attract into 2006 that will make me decide whether to advertise on it,” Mr. Kelly said.

“This is going to be a very crowded table, he added. “Now we have to make those serious considerations about which ones are attracting a sizable audience, and we’ll make our decision from that.”

For AOL, projects like these are designed to build an audience for its ad-supported Web portal.

“In order to be successful, we have to introduce better and better services,” said Jim Bankoff, executive VP of programming and products for AOL. “In the content realm, we are launching more and more broadband networks.”

TMZ Network Live, which shows concerts, and the upcoming In2TV, which features TV series from the Warner Bros. library, all “demonstrate our commitment to working with various creative and production entities and traditional media to exploit their talents and assets in a broadband, interactive environment, and you can expect a whole lot more of that from us,” he said.

Mr. Bankoff declined to say which content companies AOL is talking with.

TMZ will be promoted mostly virally. It already made a splash with video of a car accident involving Paris Hilton and her fianc%E9; outside an L.A. club. “You don’t really need marketing for something like that,” Mr. Bankoff said. “Word gets out pretty quickly, and friends share it via instant messaging and people beat a path to your Web site.”

For Mr. Levin, the Internet means that when he has a scoop, producers and reporters face a camera to deliver news in short clips to the TMZ audience.

“This is not television. It’s rawer, it’s urgent, it’s less produced,” he said. “I really think this is the future. People want to get what they can get on-demand, and they have as much access to a computer as they do a TV set.”