Sunday, November 11, 2007

TMZ: Cleaning Up By Dishing Dirt
The wildly popular Web site and TV show has nailed celebrity deconstruction

Alan Citron, the mild-mannered general manager of hyperactive celebrity Web site-turned-TV-show TMZ, is being asked The Question. And he's smiling even before it's finished.

"The dumbing down of the culture is a really competitive field," says Citron, a former business journalist for the Los Angeles Times. "Where do you want to start? MTV? Sports? Video games?"

I am asking about the tut-tutting tone of some commentators, the ones who regard TMZ at arm's length and pinched between two fingers, like a dirty sock. In reality it's one of the canniest media plays going, even if it is comfortable—at home, in fact—with extremely unflattering pictures and videos of celebrities (and quasi-celebrities), some of which depict things I can't discuss in BusinessWeek.

The widely syndicated TV show, which launched on Sept. 10, is so crazed in tone and pace that it seems overlong at 30 minutes. But then TMZ is emblematic of this annotative and abrupt media age, wherein a clip of a bedraggled celeb entering a store through a throng of paparazzi equals an item, so long as a funny headline is slapped on it.

Following their 6:30 a.m. meeting—which is filmed for the show—18 or so Web staffers at TMZ post dozens of items a day and break a ferocious amount of news, especially legal news. (Managing Editor and guiding spirit Harvey Levin most recently produced Celebrity Justice, which tracked celebs' legal travails—a very narrow idea that proved fruitful enough to support a daily half-hour show.)

In September, notched 10.5 million unique U.S. visitors, dwarfing its entertainment-news rivals.

In fact, the site, which is co-owned by Time Warner (TWX )units AOL and Telepictures, ranked No. 5 among all news sites, besting all nonportals save for CNN and MSNBC. Such numbers get noticed: The New York Post's iconic gossip column, Page Six, is now furiously hiring staffers to launch a much more ambitious Web site—heavy on photos and video, like TMZ—by yearend. Even Levin is agog at the bottomlessness of his audience's appetite.

"Britney [Spears] was in court" recently, he recalls. "We showed the parking area, where we knew she was coming in, for an hour and a half. And we got huge traffic."

If Levin ever slowed down— interviewing him can require dashing around TMZ's offices with a tape recorder aimed at his mug—I suspect he'd recognize that he has caught the last train to heaven.

At 57 he found the perfect outlet for his prodigious energy, work ethic, and old-school instinct for the jugular. And it's making him famous. Not every fiftysomething ex-tabloid producer sometimes subs for Larry King.

Forgotten now is how TMZ was a different animal at its launch, with serious columns about topics including the business of Hollywood and music and videos vastly different from the quick shots of raw footage for which it's now famous. "I tried putting TV on the Web," recalls Levin. "It was awful."

Right now, of course, TMZ is putting the Web on TV thanks to its extremely fast and sarcastic show.

Its ratings don't equal those of celeb-friendly shows Entertainment Tonight and Access Hollywood, but it draws a higher percentage of the younger viewers prized by advertisers.

"In short order they've been able to make a program based on deconstructing Hollywood equal several [shows] aimed at building it up," says John Rash, a senior vice-president at ad agency Campbell Mithun.

(This must irk People magazine, also owned by Time Warner, which arguably kicked off the modern celeb media craze in 1974. TMZ appears to be succeeding in translating to TV while People, and others, have not.)

Its raunch also draws many more men than other celebrity outlets. And some mainstream advertisers are responding. "Not everyone takes it for granted that this is a good place to put their brands," says Citron.

"I am sure not every celebrity is dying to work with us. But a lot of celebrities do." One is The Hills star Lauren Conrad, who's involved in a TMZ- created online promotion with AT&T .

TMZ had plans to launch a site about Washington, which were once serious enough for Levin to fly in and interview potential staffers.

These are dormant because of the TV show's demands. I suggest this is for the best, that people like seeing movie stars even at their catastrophic worst, that no one accuses senators of being good-looking or even famous. Levin just smiles. "I see something there," he says after an uncharacteristic pause. "I see wide open space."

The famous-for-D.C. crowd may be comforted knowing that Levin is too busy to launch a Beltway effort.

For now, at least.