MICHAEL Jackson’s cardiac arrest; Whitney Houston’s overdose; Tiger Woods’ marital meltdown; Chris Brown’s attack on his then girlfriend Rihanna. American celebrity news website TMZ has an impressive track record in breaking huge showbiz stories. So when a drunk Prince Harry got naked playing pool in a Las Vegas hotel suite and someone snapped him with their mobile phone, there was only one place the pictures were going to end up.
The website, founded in 2005 by Harvey Levin, a lawyer turned TV reporter, has become the go-to place for anyone with a salacious titbit for sale. Levin, producer of Celebrity Justice in the early 2000s, was frustrated by the timelag between identifying hot stories and getting them on air. By the time his late-night show went out, the major news channels had got there first. The internet, he soon realised, gave him the time advantage he wanted. “We could get it right, then get it up,” he said.
Levin, 61, brought the methods and budgets of traditional newsgathering to the burgeoning world of celebrity. After 30 years in LA, he had sources and contacts in every corner. Backed by AOL and Warner Bros company Telepictures, this was never a lonely-geek-with-laptop operation. Instead, TMZ had a dedicated staff of writers, producers, photographers and cameramen. “They are the same skills you would use to cover President Obama,” he told ABC News after Michael Jackson’s death. “You get a tip, chase down the tip, find out if it’s true, you confirm it, you source it, and you publish it.”
At first, the mainstream news sources were sceptical. According to Levin, in the early days CNN would call him about a tasty item on the site. Who, they would demand, are your sources? He would refuse to spill, they would not run the story. Until, two days later, it was everywhere. This happened a couple of times. “They see your track record, that your batting average is really good,” he told the Wall Street Journal. “Eventually they realise that if we reported it, it must be right.”
TMZ does not charge other news outlets to use its videos, provided they are properly credited. It sits back and allows the heat generated by its stories to drive traffic to its eye-meltingly advert-heavy website. That then feeds its brand extensions: its TV show (a chaotic panel discussion of whatever is new on the website) and its Hollywood tour. More spin-offs are in the pipeline.
This kind of celebrity obsession is often cited as a modern malaise. But people have always wanted to explore the dirty washing of the rich, famous and notorious. American publisher Robert Harrison identified this gap in the market while watching the televised Senate hearings on organised crime in the early 1950s. The juicy details of the wiseguys’ lifestyles and sex lives beat any soap opera. And while a magazine about the mob was never going to work, applying the same formula to Hollywood became the hugely successful Confidential magazine. National Enquirer kept up the tradition (with added aliens). All TMZ has done is widen its remit beyond the movies to take in the music industry, television, professional sports and now European royalty.
As an A-lister cannot die, or a member of the British Royal Family go on, in TMZ-speak, “a rager” every day, much of the site’s content is banal, inconsequential and, to those of us who do not venture into satellite television’s wilder shores, incomprehensible. Should I recognise these blurry figures leaving nightclubs, or hiding behind their hair in restaurants? Who is this Eli Roth who claims to have been “roofied”?
Levin is smart enough to realise that he doesn’t know what kids like. The staff at TMZ is young enough to keep him right. At their morning meetings everyone, from the girl who brings him his coconut water smoothie to the most senior producer, sits in. “The problem with many news organisations is that they have males in their 50s and 60s making the decisions,” he once told an interviewer. “I let myself be educated by the people in this room. They laugh at me.”
He lets them. It was one of the kids in the baseball caps who insisted that he pursue Kim Kardashian. She first appeared on TMZ in a paparazzi snap with her new best friend Paris Hilton. Who, the drooling 25-year-old asked, is that girl? You have got to put her on the site. And so he did, and the Kardashians are now a brand in their own right.
Harrison’s stories came from what veteran Daily Express reporter Victor Davis, who had the thankless task of standing up Confidential’s British tales, describes as “a spy network of hack journalists, private investigators, waiters, call girls, and $75-a-week starlets who were on the rosters of the major studios and were going nowhere except to bed with anyone who might boost their careers.” Add in police and hospital staff, factor in 21st-century technology, and you have a good description of TMZ’s operatives.
According to Davis, Harrison opened the way for today’s “wired-up freelance hacks, club girls with miniature recording and photographic devices hidden in their teddy bears, paps with 500mm lenses, and gumshoes with bugs for every occasion – all of them hunting the dirty secrets that will make them rich.” They, in turn, have made Levin very rich. He is worth $10 million. TMZ is valued at more than $100m, has advertising revenue of $15m a year and has more than 500,000 unique visitors a day.
With cash like that swishing around, and a smartphone in everyone’s pocket, there is nowhere in the world where a prince can remove his clothing and relax over a game of pool with some newfound friends. Savvier celebrities know that, when company comes over, phones must be confiscated at the door. Some do not permit entry to the star chamber until the guests are naked.
Meanwhile TMZ’s attention has already turned away from Harry’s bits to the details of Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes’ divorce settlement. That’s showbusiness. «
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