Harvey Levin has successfully translated his law degree and TV experience into an epic TV and internet celebrity gossip empire, with TMZ.com and its sister TV show of the same name. The Hollywood Reporter talks to the celebrity expert about being the first to break some of the most popular celebrity stories of our time, good intentions and the day he chose to put Alec Baldwin’s voice mail on his site.
The Hollywood Reporter: Did you have a feeling TMZ would be such a success when in started?
Harvey Levin: Traditionally, nobody thought of a vibrant news organization online. It was all part of a TV show. When we broke the Mel Gibson story we broke it at 8:32 on a Friday night. You can’t do that on a TV show. When we get it right, we get it up. It’s that simple. Because of that, I figured, if we could aggressively chase stories and be accurate and fair that I felt we could win.
THR: Was there ever a time where you really thought that TMZ crossed the line?
Levin: We constantly look at what we do. I’m really proud of it. We have broken more stories than any organization in entertainment times ten. They’re important stories.
Our intention certainly isn’t to be mean. Have we occasionally done something where I look at and say, “Oh god, we shouldn’t have done that sentence”? Of course. You learn from that. Anybody who’s smart is gonna do that constantly and look at what they’ve done and rethink things and retool things. But as a body of work, I’m extremely proud of it.
THR: Is there anything specific that you thought was wrong?
Levin: There’s not one huge moment that I would say, “Oh my god, I can’t believe we did that.”
Alec Baldwin, that story was something that I agonized over for a couple of days and really thought about and it was complicated in analyzing, “Do we do this story?” That was not an easy decision. I think we made the right decision on it. But it was a difficult one. There are a lot of difficult decisions you make. We have standards that we adhere to on this site that are as rigid as any news organization in America.
THR: Why did you ultimately decide to put the Alec Baldwin voicemail on this site?
Levin: It, ultimately, was the key exhibit in a court case that was admitted into evidence, was not sealed, was the critical reason why visitation was changed. It was part of a public record. The fact is that pretty much any news organization would have run it just because it was public record. But we still looked at consequences and impact on a lot of things beyond the fact that legally, it was a public record.
A couple weeks later, the David Hasselhoff hamburger video came out. We never ran it. Everybody else ran it. We didn’t run it. It wasn’t admitted in a court case, it wasn’t public record. That was shot by somebody and then it was stolen. It was always meant to be something that a daughter shot for her dad. It was very different. Even though ET and all the other entertainment shows ran it in some form and lots of other people ran it, we never did.
Look, I’m not trying to be sanctimonious here. Everybody has standards. That’s something that really matters to us and we deal with that every day. We turn down a lot of stories.
THR: You said before that you think that what you do is “important.” What is important about celebrity news and gossip?
Levin: I didn’t say it was important. I said that we’ve done important stories. There’s a huge difference. Some of the stories we’ve done are important. I think Mel Gibson was an important story. I think the stories we did about underage drinking by celebrities in Hollywood at clubs was a really important story. A lot of the stories, funny enough, that we did on Paris Hilton in jail, with the judge that just nailed her to make an example of her, they actually ended up being important stories with a message.
At the same time, is what we do life changing? No. Is it comparable to economic policy? No. Is it comparable to foreign policy? No. Is it comparable to the front page of the New York Times? No. We are part of the diet of life. It’s a part that a lot of people like. It’s not the center of their universe for most people but it’s just a fun part of their universe.
THR: How was the transition to make TMZ into a TV show?
Levin: There was a lot of pressure when we started doing the TV show because the Web site had already been successful and a lot of people were saying how can this TV show be any different than all the other shows. There were a lot of people who had just written the show off and said, “Oh it’s just gonna be a piece of garbage and it’s gonna mimic all the other shows.” There was a lot of pressure to make it different. It took a lot of thought and experimenting and I think we came up with a voice and a style that is different from a lot of the other shows. I’m really happy with it. It was not easy to do. I’m really happy with the way it came out and ultimately compared to the Internet the TV show is really easy to do.
THR: How’s that?
Levin: With the Web site there’s no definition to it. It’s not like you have the morning meeting at 6:30 and at one o’clock the show gets fed. The Web site is 24 hours a day seven days a week. It never stops. It is a beast. It is all-consuming.
The day we turned the lights on at TMZ, I remember I had this panic attack. It just didn’t occur to me until when we actually hit the switch and I thought, “Oh my god. This, now, will never stop.”
THR: Looking at some metrics for TMZ, it looks like the traffic has hit a plateau. It’s a very nice plateau. Are you looking to change anything up to get new visitors?
Levin: Are we gonna grow the business? Yeah. Our page views, we’ve done some things now, our page views have just exploded. Just in terms of distribution, of course we’re gonna grow the business That’s why the job is so interesting. The last thing we’re gonna do is sit back and say, “OK, this is great. We’re not gonna grow it beyond where we are.”
THR: Any TMZ offshoots in the works?
Levin: There are things we’re working on. I don’t want to get specific. One of the evolutions of the site is that we are involved more in pop culture than we were at the beginning. It’s not just entertainment. We’re going into other things. We have politics on the site. We have sports on the site. We have cooking on the site, where there’s just interesting stories. It’s a broader site than it was when we started.