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HollywoodSultan of Sleaze
How Harvey Levin built TMZ into the world's most popular purveyor of gossip about Lindsay, Paris, and Hollywood's very rich and stupid
ZONE OFFENSE Levin (center), with TMZ's Jim Paratore (left) and Alan Citron, has corporatized gossip blogging
The first words out of Harvey Levin's mouth are, "I've got to get over to Larry King in a half-hour." The 57-year-old titan of tmz.com has just burst into his nondescript office, where I've been waiting for him, an hour late for our interview. He wears a look of near panic on his deeply tanned face. He rushes through the room to check his phone for messages before sitting down across from me, fidgeting like an overcaffeinated student on an all-nighter.
"I've got a huge crush of things," he explains, quickly. "But I want to talk to you, so...." So let's get this over with.
Levin can be forgiven for dispensing with pleasantries. I have the good fortune of meeting with him just hours after Lindsay Lohan's July arrest on suspicion of DUI while pursuing her former assistant's mother through the streets of Santa Monica. It's as though I've arranged to tag along with Dan Rather on the day Kennedy was shot.
By the time of our 3 p.m. meeting, Levin had already embarked on a furious round of talking head interviews with CNN, Headline News, Fox News Channel, ABC News, and four local stations.
TMZ thrives on stories like this, and Levin lives for them. Not two years ago, he was the executive producer of a failing syndicated show called Celebrity Justice, and TMZ was little more than a digital twinkle in the eyes of two Time Warner executives—Jim Paratore, president of Telepictures, Time Warner's syndication arm, and Jim Bankoff, AOL's programming chief—who saw an opening for a trashy, no-holds-barred website covering celebrity indiscretions. (TMZ is an acronym for "30-mile zone," the area surrounding L.A. inside of which studios, according to union rules, are not required to pay overnight lodging for film crews.) When it launched, the site had so little juice in Hollywood that its reporters were reduced to identifying themselves as "calling from Time Warner."
That changed in May 2006, when one of TMZ's videographers caught an apparently loaded Brandon Davis, grandson of oil billionaire Marvin Davis, walking down Sunset Boulevard with Paris Hilton during a night of clubbing. Mugging for the cameras, Davis launched into a two-minute rant about Lohan's pudenda: "Lindsay Lohan is a firecrotch, and she has freckles coming out of her vagina, and her clitoris is seven feet long." The video was viewed more than 2.5 million times, according to TMZ—exposure that put the site on the map and proved there is an enormous audience for shaky handheld video of even the most peripheral players in young Hollywood saying irretrievably obnoxious things.
HEIR ABHORRENT In 2006, TMZ caught Brandon Davis' infamous "firecrotch" rant against Lindsay Lohan, and traffic to the website surged (See TMZ's coverage)
It also proved that massive conglomerates can make money in the online gossip business. (TMZ officials say the site is profitable, but decline to break out figures.) Time Warner has always had People, but its entry into the seedier side of celebrity coverage has raised eyebrows in Hollywood. Much of what TMZ does—staking out clubs and hotspots and lying in wait for drunk starlets—used to be the exclusive province of small paparazzi agencies. "For Time Warner to have their staff guys running around with video cameras like that—it's unprecedented," says Randy Bauer, co-owner of Bauer-Griffin, a paparazzi agency.
Photograph by Blake Little
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Posted by: al92lt1 on September 20, 2007 1:43 PM
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