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Is TMZ really cut out for TV?

SCOTT COLLINS

Harvey Levin sounded, as he so often does, excited.

The co-founder of the celebrity-gossip site TMZ.com was sitting on a videotape that he knew could be explosive. “It involves a star doing a really crazy thing,” Levin told me last week. “It was caught on surveillance. We haven’t put this on the site yet.”

Ooh, sounds juicy. Who is it, and what’s this star doing? Getting pinched for drugs? Exploding in an anti-Semitic rant? Leaving an abusive voice mail for a supposed loved one?

“I’m not gonna tell you that,” Levin said, tantalizingly.

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Soon enough the world will know, however, because Levin is planning to lead with the tape on “TMZ,” the new syndicated TV series that premieres nationwide today (in Los Angeles, on KTTV Channel 11 at 6:30 p.m. and 11:30 p.m.). Levin and Telepictures Productions -- the Warner Bros. unit that also makes “The Ellen DeGeneres Show” and “Tyra Banks” -- are about to discover whether America’s No. 1 entertainment news site can be adapted for the brutal world of syndicated television, where original programming tends to drop like underage starlets who have over-imbibed.

TMZ, make no mistake, has been phenomenally successful in its Web incarnation. Even those who never visit the site are familiar with its handiwork, thanks to devoted digging from Levin and staff -- and also, some say, to an outsized checkbook, courtesy of Warner Bros. and partner AOL, that enables them to scoop up multimedia evidence of stars behaving badly.

TMZ.com posted the audiotape in which Alec Baldwin angrily addressed his 11-year-old daughter as “a thoughtless little pig.” It was first with the video of Michael Richards’ racial-slur-studded meltdown. And then there was the capstone of its tabloid achievement, breaking the tale of Mel Gibson’s anti-Semitic tirade after a July 2006 DUI arrest.

The mix of salacious content and speedy posting has made TMZ a destination not just for gossip junkies but also envious rival journos, who inevitably find themselves using the site as a tip sheet. But that’s the Internet, where users toggle at high speeds in deathless pursuit of whatever looks new, weird or lurid. A daily half-hour television series is another matter entirely.

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“They have to be sort of cautious, because there’s not someone going to rehab every day, there’s not someone crashing their car every day,” Frank Cicha, senior vice president of programming for the Fox Station Group, said, referring to “TMZ.” The program is running on 25 Fox affiliates, representing about 41% of the U.S. (other stations will give the show 98% total coverage).

For a TV show, “You have to have a little more meat on the bone than just the blurbs on the website,” Cicha added.

Celebrity antics may seem tailor-made for the small screen, but in fact the recent history of the tabloid and gossip genre is not encouraging. Fox briefly tried to revive “A Current Affair” a couple of years back. Court TV bombed with a widely pilloried effort to adapt the document-expose site TheSmokingGun.com, a close cousin of TMZ.com. “Celebrities Uncensored,” a video paparazzi show, ran for a couple of seasons on E! Entertainment.

Much of the problem stems from sheer competition. There are just too many warm bodies jostling at the celebrity trough, ready to pounce on whatever scandalous giblet happens to fall. “TMZ” is jockeying alongside a pair of syndicated old-timers, “Entertainment Tonight,” a red-carpet fixture since 1981, and the 11-year-old “Access Hollywood.” (To clear a path, Fox is scheduling “TMZ” at 6:30 p.m. in many markets -- opposite network newscasts but at least a half-hour ahead of “ET” and “Access”). And on prime-time cable, Nancy Grace, Greta Van Susteren and others chew over the crime angle, including the new subgenre of “celebrity justice.” Despite all that, Levin still likes his odds, because he says “TMZ” will be unique.

“What we have to do,” he said, “is be different, and be humorous. . . . We take our jobs seriously, but we don’t act like we’re curing cancer.”

No, indeed. When it’s not in investigative mode, TMZ.com can be lighthearted, if a trifle cruel; a headline last summer accompanying a photo of a beefy-looking Steven Seagal reported that the actor’s “Waist Line Is ‘Under Siege.’ ” The producers say the fact that they’re not angling for celebrity access, à la “ET,” will enable them to retain that unfiltered, ironic posture on TV.

“We don’t want interviews with celebrities,” said Telepictures President Hilary Estey McLoughlin. “The show has a point of view which is unique in this genre.” Other celebrity magazine shows, she added, “have a lot of people they have to make feel comfortable.”

Over the last few months, Levin, a former legal reporter for KCBS-TV Channel 2, and executive producer Jim Paratore geared up for the TV launch by tripling the size of the Web staff (originally 25 or so) and moving from Glendale to new offices on the Sunset Strip. There have been hiccups along the way; last month, veteran producer Bryn Freedman exited just weeks after Telepictures trumpeted her hiring in a news release.

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“With any start-up show, there are fits that work out and some that don’t,” Levin said, declining to elaborate. “There’s been very little turnover on this show.”

The staff has been churning out practice shows for the last month. Levin said the formula will be freewheeling, the pacing rapid. Each show will begin with clips from that day’s 6:30 a.m. staff meeting, where editors and writers toss around ideas, and feature multiple items.

Initial reports indicated Levin would serve as host, but he played down his screen time during the dry runs, and other on-camera personalities have been hired, including Adam Carolla’s KLSX-FM morning show sidekick Teresa Strasser, a former TLC host and an occasional contributor to The Times. New technology will allow the program to be produced much more cheaply than its rival celebrity shows, Levin said.

One obvious question: When it comes to scoops, which medium will take precedence, the Web or TV? Will TMZ hold hot gossip to accommodate its new television deadlines? Levin said the website will continue to take precedence, posting news as soon as it gets it. But then, he has been holding that tape of a celeb going “really crazy.”

“When something is not time-sensitive -- and this isn’t -- we’ll be smart about it,” he said.

And what about TV standards? Late last week, TMZ.com confirmed as authentic a much-disputed nude photo of allegedly squeaky-clean “High School Musical” star Vanessa Hudgens. Is that the kind of story that’s safe to drop in viewers’ homes during the dinner hour?

“There are some things we can’t do,” Levin said. “The website pushes further than TV.”

But that’s a rare moment of doubt from the man who brought us Mel’s meltdown.

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“I really want this show to go on the air,” he said. “I’m not anxious in the least. . . . I’m confident this is a really good show, and that’s all I can do.”

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The Channel Island column runs every Monday in Calendar. Contact Scott Collins at scott.collins@latimes.com.


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