Sifting through last week’s viewing menu unearthed seven shows with “celebrity” in the title, promiscuously affixing the term to “Blackjack,” “Diets,” “Fit Club,” “Golf,” “Poker Showdown” and “Weirdness Explained,” a lame excuse for VH1 to regurgitate tabloid rumors.
None causes a wider ripple effect, however, than “Celebrity Justice,” a syndicated series devoted to ups, downs and petitions for summary judgment of the famous and infamous.
Count me among those who laughed derisively when Warner Bros. launched the show, wondering what it could do in week three, much less season three. Yet the program approaches this month’s NATPE convention seeking renewals and upgrades for a fourth year, having become a significant feeding tube for a celebrity-obsessed media.
In that respect, the long arm of “Celebrity Justice” (“CJ” to its friends) perfectly exemplifies the echo effect within modern news, which is why the franchise’s influence can’t be measured by its relatively small ratings.
As with Internet sites such as Matt Drudge and the Smoking Gun, its voice resonates far beyond post-midnight airings in New York and L.A. — enabling what are ostensibly more reputable outlets to wade into this murky pool without requiring their own staff to don a Speedo and goggles. As evidence, the producers happily sent over a Bible-thick stack of “CJ” citations culled from newspapers and magazines.
The greatest exposure, though, comes from other TV outlets. “CJ” reporters pop up across the dial, from “The O’Reilly Factor” and CNN to the network morning shows. They appear as experts and insiders, dutifully showing up at 4 a.m. L.A. time to chat with Matt Lauer or Julie Chen when a celebrity can’t or won’t.
Exec producer Harvey Levin insists this was all part of his grand scheme when pitching “CJ” and being challenged to demonstrate there was enough material to sustain seven stories each weekday, plus a weekend installment, 43 weeks a year.
“The idea was always about branding it outside the show,” he says. “I wanted us to be everywhere.”
Just last week, for example, “Celebrity Justice” broke the news that Halle Berry’s divorce was final. This vital information prompted much excitement around my house, and equal enthusiasm in print and broadcast circles.
As Levin, a former local news reporter, observes regarding some of the fluffier or zanier cases that capture the media’s fancy, “To put Wolf Blitzer on the story wouldn’t be a good fit.”
Levin argues part of the show’s appeal stems from the fact it’s “not red carpet managed,” revealing aspects of celebrity life that don’t usually wind up in publicists’ pitch letters. Stars divorce, get into property disputes and experience injuries, just like everyone else, when they aren’t being arrested for high-profile crimes.
It’s the little stuff, actually, that can humanize the subjects, although wealth absurdly magnifies many of the problems. In fact, the program frequently plays down usual suspects — such as the Robert Blake or Michael Jackson trials — precisely because those stories get saturated elsewhere.
What’s most fascinating is that “CJ” can’t be ignored because of its relationship with other media. In that sense, the concept has outgrown the series, bringing the franchise into homes that have never bothered to tune in the program itself.
Celebrity attorney Marty Singer has watched these Johnnys-come-lately become tip sheets, creeping into more traditional channels. Take a civil suit he filed on behalf of Bruce Willis in a suburban court, far from the downtown news hounds. In relatively short order, the pleading landed on the Internet, and the phone began ringing.
“Three years ago, that lawsuit never would have been noticed,” Singer says, adding in regard to “Celebrity Justice,” “It’s almost like they’re AP, reporting the news, and everybody else picks it up.”
So publicists, attorneys and other celebrity handlers must pay attention to such programs and Web sites, knowing their coverage is oftentimes the first drip of the deluge to come. Singer hardly welcomes the trend, but he acknowledges that suppression is seldom a realistic option. “A balanced picture is all you can ask,” he says.
Indeed, that’s about the best anyone can aspire to in today’s media bistro — an abundant haven for dirty laundry, malice toward some and “Justice” for all.