Is TMZ Crumbling Under Harvey Levin?
It would be unrealistic to say the end is near for TMZ.com, the gossip website founded by Harvey Levin that Mel Gibson's anti-Semitic tirade put on the map. But all signs are pointing to trouble for the AOL-Telepictures celebrity venture. Readership is down. So is revenue. Top staffers are leaving. The spin-off show TMZ has lost its buzz. And TMZ.com just saw People.com overtake it for the No. 2 spot of most-visited celebrity websites (Yahoo's OMG is No. 1, thanks to all of the search giant's traffic dumping).
Oh, and that's on top of growing backlash within the gossip industry, as competing mainstream tabloid outlets, bloggers, and (we suspect, if traffic levels are any indication) readers are growing increasingly disgusted for what qualifies as "content" on the site.
Has TMZ already hit its peak — and started snowballing toward implosion? From numerous conversations with TMZ insiders, Levin confidantes, industry players, and fellow bloggers, the answer is a resounding "yes."
TMZ's "Newsworthy" Content
TMZ will live and die by the celebrity news cycle. In the beginning, TMZ reacted to it: Michael Richards said something racist? Post! Lindsay Lohan got in an accident? Post! Now, they're practically manufacturing celebrity news, or at least trying to redefine the criteria for what makes something newsworthy. Part of this is the fault of … celebrities. Britney Spears is cleaning up her act. Paris Hilton has been staying home some nights. Lindsay Lohan is dating Samantha Ronson, and keeping out of trouble. But that doesn't mean, say, a lawsuit filed by former Baywatch star Nicole Eggert against his ex-boyfriend is newsworthy. So why the breathless reportage? Because there's nothing else going on. Much of the site's content has been reduced to this marginal BREAKING! EXCLUSIVE! news. It reeks of desperation, and readers can smell it.
Lack of Decency
But what happens when an actual newsworthy celebrity event does take place? TMZ gets on the story — and goes 100 steps too far. We need only cast an eye toward this weekend's plane disaster that left four dead and Travis Barker and DJ AM in the burn unit. Hoping to grasp on to some hefty pageviews, Levin went the utterly distasteful route. In one post, TMZ blamed Barker's now-dead assistant Chris Baker for the crash, since he wanted to get home to witness the birth of his child; Barker doesn't usually fly private jets, TMZ said, but acquiesced because of Baker. Perhaps realizing they went to far, TMZ removed the post; it now redirects to the homepage. But actually, that's not the worst of TMZ's coverage of the incident: Levin also posted footage of the aftermath of the plane's crash, and notes "you can hear what is apparently Travis Barker pleading desperately for help." Again, perhaps in a bout of reflection, TMZ removed that post, but not before blasting it to its email list. The post "Chris Baker's Final Photo" remains online.
Harvey's Managerial Skills
Nobody ever said Levin was easy to get along with. But lately, we're told, he's all but abandoned common sense in favor of rage fits. He can regularly be witnessed arguing (read: screaming) with his staffers over small matters. He goes around his own team to post directly to the site, leaving TMZ.com riddled with spelling and grammatical errors that editors have to go back and fix. One former Levin confidant recalled the days when the TMZ boss would go out of his way to help others, and the words "please" and "thank you" regularly came from his mouth. No longer. Now, he's a "tyrant" and a "bully" who's "forgotten about the people [who helped make his career]." In the place of the old, likable Harvey? An "angry, nasty person," we're told. One TMZ insider pointed to the recent departures of general manager Alan Citron (to Buzznet) supervising producer Gillian Sheldon (to another Telepicture online unit) as evidence that even top-level people have grown tired of Levin's brand of management. Mid-level staffers are said to be job hunting. And others are furious that the TMZ television show is often takes precedent — and more of Levin's devotion — over the website.
And here's where things might get most serious. A source close to Levin says he and TMZ are in the middle of two separate investigations. The first is being executed by Kroll, the "risk management" company whose security services unit is known to be a shadow-y ballbuster. Kroll's fee is supposedly being bankrolled by the very celebrities Levin covers, who've felt they've been wronged by the TMZ kingpin. (Or simply unable to sway the way he covers them?) Kroll is said to be looking into the finances of Harvey and Warner Bros., though we've as yet been unable to identify the celebrities who are supposedly paying for their services. And speaking of finances, we're also told federal authorities have their eye on TMZ. In this scenario, the FBI is looking into allegations of Levin & Co. paying off court officials and legal authorities for access to court records and police reports that are either under seal or wouldn't normally be made available to the public so quickly. Officially, TMZ says it doesn't pay sources for information, but a certain O.J. Simpson witness says otherwise. The FBI, though, is more concerned with sealed documents being illegally leaked to TMZ, and police department sources tipping off the site in exchange for bribes. Levin didn't respond to a request for comment. A FBI spokesperson could not (or would not) confirm nor deny there was an open investigation. On-lookers, however, have grown increasingly suspicious about TMZ's endless access to records, and its ability to get its hands on them before anyone else. Scrappy reporters, or deep pockets?
In the meantime, TMZ.com rolls on with the status quo. You know, like accusing Lance Bass of being secretly straight. Breaking news!