How 'TMZ Live' Became America's Guiltiest Pleasure
Ten years ago this week, Harvey Levin debuted the show that would go on to break some of the most infamous celebrity gossip stories.
Photo by Gabe Ginsberg via Getty Images
This Week in 2007 is a weekly column looking back on Lindsay Lohan, the first iPhone, George W. Bush, and everything else we loved about the year 2007.
If you took a time machine back to 2007 and told Americans that Donald Trump would become president and his communications director would go on TMZ Live to discuss OJ Simpson's lawyer's son and his ex-girlfriend, you'd sound like a madman. TMZ founder Harvey Levin, however, might say you have the same understanding of the country's salacious interests as he does.
Levin debuted his syndicated gossip show TMZ Live ten years ago this week. Within a month, then-New York Times reporter Brian Stelter reported that it had become the highest-rated new syndicated daytime show of the year, boasting over 1.5 million viewers. Entertainment Tonight attracted over 3 million more people, but the majority (61 percent) of its audience was over the age of 50, compared to TMZ's 39 percent. Ten years later, TMZ Live is still sparking headlines and debates.
Success has been credited to TMZ's scoops (like security footage of Solange Knowles kicking Jay-Z in an elevator) but much of the show's appeal lies in the cast of Levin and his employees. Each episode follows the same format: Levin sits next to producer Charles Latibeaudiere. Both men wear black shirts. Next to them, an animated graphic shows the day's topics of discussion.
On the episode covering Prince's death, Levin and Latibeaudiere bantered like the old men in the Muppets for several minutes, with Levin alluding to a story they scooped about the late musician's alleged drug use. Their reporting fuels the conversation, but their repartee feels like we're just watching a couple of friends chatting at a bar. They cut each other off, occasionally argue, and have clear relationships. Levin leads all conversations. He and Latibeaudiere seem like best buds, while Walters comes across as a respected frenemy. (He has since departed TMZ to found his own company, the Blast, which has scooped TMZ and scored its own Times profile.)
After Whitney Houston died, TMZ Live staff gathered in the bullpen to dish their theories about the singer's drug and alcohol consumption—each tidbit punctuated by Levin's cries of, "Oh my god, shocking!" The segment culminated in Levin yelling, "The body was in the hotel while they were having the Grammy party!" as staffers looked scandalized.
TMZ Live reveals the details we find distasteful but love to read, while the show's cast revels in the information. They're not at all like traditional on-air talent, yet they demand our fascination. Levin may seem to lack a connection to Walters and Latibeaudiere, but the three are bonded by their mutual gruffness and obsession with celebrity. They may not wear suits like the bores on ET and Extra, but they know how to appeal to America's nastiest instincts and hold our attention.
As the late, great David Carr tweeted, "TMZ is one of the best cast, best written shows on TV. There, I said it."