The TMZ Website has made its name from being there first when celebrities go bad, whether they are spewing racial epithets, shaving their heads, or popping in and out of rehab. And the last few weeks have offered up a tabloid-friendly goldmine.
But the planned TV spinoff has soared to clearances in 87% of the country for next fall, thanks as much to stations' need for news-compatible programming and intention to monetize the Internet as to the outbursts of Mel Gibson and Michael Richards.
The show has made all of its sales since Warner Bros. Domestic Television Distribution (WBDTD) started peddling the Telepictures Prods.' magazine show at last month's National Association of Television Program Executives (NATPE) conference, seemingly in line with the explosion of headlines about everything from crazed astronauts to razored singers to the hazy issues surrounding the death of Anna Nicole Smith.
But WBDTD President Ken Werner says the bulk of the sales were done before the Smith and Britney Spears stories began dominating news cycles. So timing was key, but the success was related more to the Fox stations' needs when Geraldo at Large was cancelled and repeats of Two and a Half Men and Family Guy went elsewhere.
“We created the show in many respects with [Fox] in mind,” Werner says. “Neither of these stories [Smith and Spears] had broken when Fox made their commitment. I honestly don't think they had any measurable effect on the sales.”
It also helped that WBDTD began selling during NATPE, a convention that didn't produce much new competition from major syndicators.
While that may have led to some of TMZ's sales momentum, Werner attributes much of the drive to a project that addresses stations' goal of increasing Web-based revenue. Each station will have access to a customized TMZ news module on its Website and won't be required to share profits with WBDTD if Internet numbers spike.
“We heard [stations] did not have the ability to add substantial costs to their Website because of the pressure to increase profitability,” Werner says. “So even if they had the financial wherewithal, they have yet to be able to monetize the Internet to make the investment.”
In addition to the business model, stations are also betting on the industry veterans who will executive-produce the show: TMZ.com Managing Editor Harvey Levin and paraMedia founder Jim Paratore.
But the series, which is still settling on host and format, will sink or swim based on its ability to parlay the strengths of its Website into a daily show.
“The Website has been very popular with the latest on Hollywood, good or bad,” says Pat Mullen, VP/general manager of the Fox stations in Chicago. “We think there is a great deal of interest in that.”
Mullen plans to air the show at 11:30 p.m. out of Seinfeld on WFLD (Fox) and in access on WPWR (MyNetworkTV).
“a different point of view”
TMZ.com has become famous for being on the scene when salacious stories break—most notably, Gibson's imbroglio. The question remains what it will do until the next inevitable celebrity car crash or crash and burn.
“We tell stories from a different point of view,” Werner says. “We don't cover the Oscars; we cover the parties after the parties after the Oscars.”
In other words, don't expect to see a TMZ correspondent talking about an Oscar winner's dress—unless another winner has just thrown up on it.
But with camera phones virtually everywhere, Werner figures it won't be long before the next scandals hit. “Given our culture, you can expect another flurry,” he says with a laugh.
And a big one around the show's fall launch would give TMZ yet another case of good timing.