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Smoking Gun finds its way in H’wood

Web site, Court TV aim for network series

After a heady two weeks exposing James Frey, Web site the Smoking Gun and parent company Court TV are making ambitious plans in Hollywood.

The investigative site could soon become the basis of a scripted series on broadcast television. Court TV has been in negotiations with at least one network for a series that would draw on the premise and name of the popular site.

While conversations pre-date the scandal over the veracity of Frey’s “Million Little Pieces,” TSG’s parent company is hoping heat from that story will fuel a deal. “This really allows us to kick things into high gear,” Court TV chairman Henry Schleiff, who is handling negotiations for the site, told Daily Variety.

Schleiff didn’t provide details on the show but said he thought the mix of subject and personalities made TSG a strong basis for a fiction series. “Think Woodward and Bernstein on speed — they’re a little younger, a little hipper.”

Court TV also runs specials with TSG on its own net featuring, of all things, puppets re-enacting legal controversies. Net will likely focus its next episode on the Frey incident.

Meanwhile, reporters for the Smoking Gun are working on a new story about Frey’s “My Friend Leonard.” While it’s unclear what form the story will take, it will be based in part on sources from Frey’s life who came forward after TSG’s original piece.

“Leonard,” which came out last year, is about the author’s relationship with a mobster he met in rehab. After a feverish 14 days of media coverage, TSG had been held up as the latest example of an indie online outlet — albeit one with corporate backing — to pick up the slack for larger media.

A camp curiosity for much of its nine years, TSG drew the most traffic it has ever received for a story when it published “The Man Who Conned Oprah” two weeks ago. “We knew it would have legs. We didn’t think it would have this much legs,” editor-in-chief William Bastone said.

But Bastone says certain realities, such as the fact that TSG only has three full-time edit staffers, make it hard for the site be too much of a Hollywood player — or even a purveyor of longer pieces. “If we go off and spend weeks at a time on one project, our reporting staff is not doing the other things we need to do,” Bastone said. “We’re trying to strike a balance.”

The site does have a lot of Hollywood cachet, largely because of the celebrity factor; Sean “Diddy” Combs and Ben Affleck are among those who have railed against it because of the public information it reveals.

“I think my most constant Hollywood contact is (power attorney) Marty Singer,” Bastone quipped.

But even with the name recognition, the site’s pulpy focus on public documents may not wind up translating into entertainment-world clout. In the long run, it may be a site mainly popular with a niche audience — mostly bloggers and amateur snoops.

Still, its owners aren’t sitting back. Because of the Frey bump, Court TV will be selling more bundled TV-Web packages to advertisers, Schleiff said.

And on Monday Court TV sent a package to reporters that included a letter from Schleiff, a copy of the report and a volume of “A Million Little Pieces, complete with Oprah’s Book Club endorsement. “We are very proud to be the leading network in the investigative genre,” Schleiff wrote, “and hope that you will enjoy the enclosed book.”

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