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‘Gun’ fires on all cylinders

Website brand expanding into 'People,' Court TV

The Smoking Gun brand is cocked and fully loaded, and now poised to be a key part of Court TV’s new investigative identity.

Few Web sites founded in 1997 have survived into the current century; fewer still have fully expanded across multiple media platforms. But how many sites have revealed the skinny on showbiz notables ranging from Rick Rockwell (restraining order) to Larry Wachowski (divorce papers)?

  • On Aug. 20, Court TV airs hourlong special “Smoking Gun TV.” The first in a series of quarterly specials, the Mo Rocca-hosted show brings the same irreverence to unearthed legal paperwork that made the Web site famous.

  • Tune into an Infinity radio station and you’re likely to encounter one of the Smoking Gun’s weekly vignettes.

  • A regular column in People began running last week.

Court TV purchased the Smoking Gun in 2000 in a deal rumored to be worth six figures. And while the net won’t comment on details, prexy-chief operating officer Art Bell says it was a worthwhile investment.

“Anything that serves to make them more popular and fits in with what Court TV is doing is looked on as a development,” Bell says of these ancillary projects. “All of this will provide great opportunity for financial gain.”

While brand saturation was never part of the original plan, Bell always envisioned great possibilities from the site.

“One of the things we’re doing with the channel is that we’re getting a bit lighter, younger and hipper,” he says.

For Smoking Gun co-founder William Bastone, exploitation of the brand to this extent goes beyond all expectations he had even in the go-go ’90s. The site was launched as a side project with a fellow reporter, Daniel Green.

“We were not deluded into thinking this would be a huge operation,” Bastone says of the original business model. Both now work full-time on the site, but Bastone’s aw-shucks demeanor rings true: Even though the operation doubled its employees after the sale to Court TV, that meant going from two to four — though they’re budgeted for five.

“We were tucked behind a door that used to be the mailroom,” Bastone recalls. “About 90% of (Court TV) didn’t even know we were there.”

The Smoking Gun brand has firmly established a place in the cultural landscape, with its army of tipsters, old roommates and exes ready to drop a dime. And although it’s new-media, the Smoking Gun still relies on grassroots distribution to build awareness.

“We’ve developed relationships with sites that send us traffic,” Bastone says. “We have a world of contacts that run sites and publications, and if we think they’ll be interested, we reach out to them.”

Bell hopes to have 13 episodes of “Smoking Gun TV” on the slate by next summer.

And after that? “Smoking Gun — the Movie,” Bell says.