TMZ makes its TV debut

Warner Bros. backing 'celebrity meltdown' show

Completing a rare lap from TV syndication to the Internet and back again, “TMZ” makes its debut as a TV show this week, approaching celebrities the way a blitzing linebacker barks at opposing quarterbacks — that is, prepare to take a hit.

Promising it won’t be content to “wait on the red carpet for photo-ops,” “TMZ’s” promotion pledges to deliver “every celebrity meltdown and wig-out,” concluding, “You make them stars. But ‘TMZ’ makes them real.”

It’s the kind of bold talk one might expect from producers who rebounded from cancellation and morphed into a success online. As a weekday TV program distributed by Warner Bros., however, the series could test an old maxim about media conglomerates — something about how all that size creates a soft underbelly.

“TMZ” began as “Celebrity Justice,” a syndicated series marrying courtroom drama with foibles of the rich and famous. Although the show struggled to find clearances and ultimately didn’t survive, exec producer Harvey Levin kept the core mission alive with TMZ.com, a website devoted to exposing the tawdrier side of celebrity life within Los Angeles’ “Thirty Mile Zone” (hence the name).

Warner Bros. has downplayed the relationship between “CJ” and “TMZ,” but this Phoenix-like birth out of the former’s ashes marks an impressive tale of perseverance, with a concept that was perhaps ahead of our trash-sifting, Paris Hilton-loving, celebrity-obsessed times. TMZ regularly unearths dirt that provides grist for cable and local news, where even the few smart programs in that space bow to the allure of pop culture, as evidenced by MSNBC’s “Countdown With Keith Olbermann” and its nightly “Keeping Tabs” segment.

Although “Entertainment Tonight” and “Access Hollywood” have exhibited tabloid streaks over the years, “TMZ” is betting the public will warm to a show informed by star-directed snark. The gestation period on the Internet has “given us freedom to redefine the way we tell stories,” Levin says.

Ah, but that’s where questions of whether media giants have an Achilles’ heel kicks in. Critics have already griped about TMZ’s aggressive tactics, at times appearing to cultivate conflict to generate video money-shots of celebs like Brad Garrett teeing off on cameramen.

Levin maintains that “TMZ” is careful not to provoke confrontation and has actually built up reservoirs of good will in Hollywood — including among publicists, who “realize they’re not going to be able to bully us” — by being fair in dealing with celebrities.

“Our camera guys have strict rules,” he says. “They don’t incite. They don’t invade privacy, they don’t chase.”

Still, “TMZ’s” rough edges have raised the specter of “Hard Copy,” a Paramount series that aired adjacent to “ET.” “Hard Copy’s” intrusive “stalkerazzi” prompted an unusual outcry from celebrities in 1996, led by then-“ER” star George Clooney. Irked over being targeted, Clooney threatened an “ET” boycott unless Paramount called off the “Hard Copy” dogs. The studio not only complied, but did so in writing — a lapse of journalistic integrity (such as it was) that prompted the actor to publicly ridicule Paramount’s syndication arm, later enlisting other celebrities to join his defiant stance.

Pitchfork-carrying mobs might be a stretch, but pushed far enough, it’s not a complete leap to contemplate stars retaliating — not just against “TMZ,” but if they’re thinking like Clooney did, at other Time Warner assets. At a minimum, the show’s arrival potentially adds wrinkles to the elaborate dance between talent and the studio, which relies on them as performers and needs access to them for media outlets such as Entertainment Weekly, People and CNN. (Clooney, who’s been affiliated with Warner Bros. for some time, has thus far stayed mum about “TMZ.”)

Admittedly, other conglomerates face similar dilemmas, yet most of those enterprises at least cover a range of news beyond poking holes in celebrities’ publicity-inflated bubbles. Moreover, the idea of ganging up against a news organization is hardly without precedent, as seen in Democratic candidates pulling out of a Fox News-sponsored presidential debate because of the channel’s perceived Republican tilt.

To Levin, making stars “real” simply involves digging deeper than customary red carpet fawning over “flawless people … speaking rehearsed lines. That’s been the diet on television.”

“TMZ” wants to spice up that menu, but in doing so, it’s catering to two constituencies: the masses, hungry for celebrity dish; and the stars providing fodder for such prying eyes, including those with which Warner Bros. is — and would like to remain — in business.

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