The impresario of an online and television infotainment empire is navigating a stay-at-home world without bold-faced names on red carpets, coming out of airports (a regular source of TMZ ambushes), or getting into fights at nightclubs.
In the first few weeks, it wasn't always easy — one story on the TMZ site was about lounging squirrels that had overtaken a park abandoned by foot traffic. Yet it turns out the technical challenges that come with quarantine have occupied more of his time than filling space on his programs with things to talk about.
“There's just so much content,” he said. Those who've tuned in to TMZ the past week have seen video of Oprah Winfrey cooking salmon and pasta, sipping red wine and singing along to Harry Belafonte. Lizzo used cell phone video to highlight a favorite body part. Rapper Blueface hosted a social distancing party that was undermined when two drunk women traded punches.
“We miss you guys,” Donnie Wahlberg told Levin in a Skype interview. “We miss seeing you in that studio with all your crew and just being part of our everyday life ... You guys are underappreciated.” Levin produces three television shows regularly. “TMZ on TV” is essentially a comic pop culture half hour, available through syndication in virtually all of the nation's TV homes. “TMZ Live” trends a little more serious, an hour-long newscast available in 80 percent of the nation's homes, and “TMZ Sports” is on the Fox Sports 1 network.
It doesn't take much to get the “TMZ on TV” tongues talking. Viral videos, like the newscaster whose at-home report accidentally showed her husband showering in the background, invites snark. Sofia Vergara sent in a picture of herself and a younger niece, both in bikinis facing away from the camera, to prompt a guessing game of who was who.
“TMZ Sports” isn’t harmed by the lack of games. More likely, it’s enhanced because the players have more spare time, Levin said. Tom Brady’s workouts in Tampa Bay have produced their share of stories.
Monday's sports show featured stories about an NFL draftee with a controversial tattoo, and some amateur marriage counseling prompted by the breakup of Jay Cutler and Kristin Cavallari, among other topics.
But TMZ hasn't just focused on celebrity. “TMZ Live” led Monday’s show with Levin and co-host Charles Latibeaudiere expressing horror at video of a Chicago house party where dozens stood crowded together in a room, prompting a discussion of whether adherence to social distancing was becoming more lax.
“We’ve had (California) Gov. (Gavin) Newsom, Mayor (Keisha Lance) Bottoms from Atlanta, we’ve had Mark Cuban and Dr. Phil — all sorts of people who have come on the show to talk about what’s going on with their personal lives and what they’re doing to help people, “ he said. ”There’s a lot of material out there.”
Veteran Hollywood publicist Howard Bragman said he didn't doubt Levin would be able to deal with the changed environment: "He kind of created the genre, so he knows how to deal with it.” Entertainment shows, TMZ's included, seem to be holding their own in the ratings, helped by viewers seeking an alternative to serious coronavirus stories, said Bill Carroll, an expert in the syndication market.
“This has been so eye-opening in terms of the entertainment business,” Levin said. “We had to pivot overnight. Five weeks ago when we went home, my technical team figured out overnight how to get our shows running from home.”
He admitted to worrying about whether the “TMZ on TV” vibe of staff members in the office trading one-liners about pop culture could be replicated in a Zoom gallery, and has been pleasantly surprised.
“I think everyone is in on the joke right now,” he said. “They know it's Skype, they know it's Zoom, they know it's FaceTime. I think that used to be off-putting because you could see the difference with regular video. I don't think it's off-putting anymore.”
In the midst of all this, Levin said he was asked by Fox entertainment to produce a special on the Netflix series “Tiger King” and given a six-day deadline. He said he and his staff had to put together 19 remote interviews in a couple of days, something they could never have done if camera crews had to be used for each one.
He predicted the ability of outlets like TMZ to work remotely will permanently change how business is conducted and how stories are illustrated. “Is it challenging?” he said. “Yes. But I've learned more in the last five weeks than I learned in 10 years, in terms of television production and digital production.”