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Is TMZ Crumbling Under Harvey Levin?

Revenue and Readership are down, Criticism and Investigations are up

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.

Under Investigation?

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!

Earlier: Is Harvey Levin Killing His TMZ Baby?

Comments (19)
No. 1 · T.O. Rialiany

TMZ is tacky - and those people sleep peacefully at night? If it were to fail, it'd be better for our culture at large.

Posted: Sep 23, 2008 at 2:32 pm · @Reply · [Flag?]
No. 2 · NR Davis

Indeed! It would give me so much joy to see it — and paparazzi thuggery — eradicated once and for all. Thre's no way the paps will go, dim-bulb America wants what it wants, but losing TMZ would be awesome. And if Mario Levandeira went too, along with all the other snarkmeisters, perhaps then I could feel audacious hope.

Posted: Sep 23, 2008 at 3:17 pm · @Reply · [Flag?]
No. 3 · initiatedsean441

yup, it's unanimous . . .Levin is a weasel and a disgrace to anything resembling pop culture or 'journalism' for that matter . . .

Posted: Sep 23, 2008 at 5:29 pm · @Reply · [Flag?]
No. 4 · mslewis

Oh, TMZ is still around?? I stopped reading and watching it a long time ago. Not worth the effort.

Posted: Sep 23, 2008 at 9:16 pm · @Reply · [Flag?]
No. 5 · Chris D.

TMZ won't last for much longer… establishments like them never do.

Posted: Sep 23, 2008 at 11:46 pm · @Reply · [Flag?]
No. 6 · Meg

FBI agent Dennis Webster (LA office) regularly "leaks" confidential information to Harvey Levin as well as reporters at the LA Times. It is all coming out in a [civil] court hearing which should lead to an investigation by the Inspector General.

Posted: Sep 24, 2008 at 12:41 am · @Reply · [Flag?]
No. 7 · Tabby Loid

So, let's get real here, OK? Harvey Levin is sooooooo deepin his gay closet and while he doesn't have the balls to "come out", he has no problem with "outing" others… Levin, a one time local LA TV legal "expert" has only wanted to be a star. By creating TMZ TV, he finally got his chance. Unfortunately, it's just a pathetic show with an aging gay man overseeing what seem to be a lot of dim witted kids who wouldn't know Jack about anyone in Tinseltown,let alone how to be a real reporter. Just a lot of kids saying "yes" to an aging queen who just happens to have some "deep pockets." Yes, TMZ DOES pay for stories and obviously has money out to cop shots and the LA Superior Court. Trust me, everyone in Tinseltown has their hand out. Harvey is basically just another Hollywood wannabe… and a pathetic one at that. By the way, don't you think he wears a "tad" too much makeup???

Posted: Sep 24, 2008 at 2:31 am · @Reply · [Flag?]
No. 8 · Tabby Loid

Oh,my, forgetto mention that isnt it a bit ironic that a closeted queen takes such delight in outing others of his ilk… Let's vote, OK, since it'nearly election time, is Harvey a "top" or a "bottom"?

Posted: Sep 24, 2008 at 2:53 am · @Reply · [Flag?]
No. 9 · Gabe

Harvin is OUT Tabby and is no by any means "soooooooo deep in his gay closet." He's had the same partner for a long time and openly discusses it.

It will be interesting to see where TMZ is (or isn't) in one years time…

Posted: Sep 26, 2008 at 10:08 am · @Reply · [Flag?]
No. 10 · Heidi

one word. Karma. What goes around comes around, and with that they put out into the world, DAMN it's coming back full force.

Posted: Sep 26, 2008 at 12:43 pm · @Reply · [Flag?]
No. 11 · TUT

WOW Ms. Sheldon and Mr. Citron must be very bitter to be the obvious leaks of this kind bitter grapes gossip. Ok now children… Let's all just relax, take a deep breath, and move on…………..

Posted: Sep 26, 2008 at 6:52 pm · @Reply · [Flag?]
No. 12 · jthames

Harvey is the worse thing that happened to peoples court and tmz.Thats why the judges didnt like him at all nor did any other lawers because he is an alchy big time and threw so many people under the bus in the process and still does that to tmz people.SCORE PEOPLES COURT 100 HARVEY -2 SCORE TMZ EMPLOYEES 100 HARVEY 100 BOTTLES OF VODKA He can drink with the best but not HOST AT ALL

Posted: Oct 20, 2008 at 4:16 am · @Reply · [Flag?]
No. 13 · phat norm

TMZ rules baby and you can cram all your comments up your ass…. TMZ will be around for years because smart people like me watch it every day & Harvey is the bomb!!!

Posted: Dec 17, 2008 at 7:12 pm · @Reply · [Flag?]
No. 14 · 99centz

you folks are all crazy!Tmz is the #1 show on the Fox network & it aint crumbling or going any where!!!

Posted: Jan 3, 2009 at 3:07 pm · @Reply · [Flag?]
No. 15 · L DeShazor

TMZ is losing its appeal because of Harvey Levin. He brings nothing to the show but a blue cup and straw. What's with that blue cup and straw? Ther're in every scene that he's in.

This redundancy has gotten old and annoying.

Posted: Jan 29, 2009 at 8:27 pm · @Reply · [Flag?]
No. 16 · danny bonaduce

hahahahahaha harvey is a homo. that is punishment enough.

Posted: Jan 30, 2009 at 4:54 pm · @Reply · [Flag?]
No. 17 · Annoyed TD Max

What is the significance of the blue bottle and red straw that is displayed in virtually every scene that Harvey Levin is in? Sometimes the bottle and straw are displayed before Levin is featured.

Is there some kind of sick perversion between Levin and this bottle and straw? Why is it in every scene with him. It is even in the photograph on this page.

I would truely like to know why TMZ is party to this sickness.

Posted: Feb 12, 2009 at 6:47 am · @Reply · [Flag?]
No. 18 · Veronica Fontagnol

Hi Mr.Levin,

When you decided to take a few days off the show , so did I.I started watching it just out of curiousity and eventually really enjoyed you and your staff very much after a day of work.I think you guys are fun, intertaining, and very witty.I laugh alot , which i love to do after all.I do have to say that without you the show is missing a big presence, and i wanted you to know that!I am a Maitre D' of a great place in Saskatoon (Canada) and would be honored to meet you.It is a private Club on Unniversity grounds to ensure communication at a research level in Innovation Place.(one of the best research parks in america(thay say) Like I said I am the Day Manager of this beautiful restaurant and i am from France originally , I really needed to let you know how great you seem to me. Please don't stop doing what you do because you have one fan that is sincere.

Posted: Apr 7, 2009 at 9:41 pm · @Reply · [Flag?]
No. 19 · bam-a-lam

Looks like someone forgot the first rule of business: Diversify.

Posted: Apr 7, 2009 at 10:24 pm · @Reply · [Flag?]
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