A few days before TMZ creator Harvey Levin came to the Winter TV Press Tour to plug his new ReelzChannel show TMZ Hollywood Sports, Bryant Gumbel came to the tour to remind reporters he has an HBO sports show. During his panel, Gumbel tipped his hat to TMZ for being first with the video of Ray Rice clocking his then-fiancée inside the casino elevator. It was a left-handed compliment in which Gumbel snarkily suggested how hard TMZ must have had to look for the video — by which it was assumed he’d meant they’d likely paid for it.
Levin spends a lot of time responding to this brand of barb. By now he’s very deft at explaining how the journalism he practices at TMZ isn’t really that different from the journalism practiced by other, more old-school outlets — despite suggestions to the contrary, made by some of those same outlets’ media critics or, in this case, sports-show hosts.
This morning, as always, Levin was utterly unapologetic when asked to respond to Gumbel’s comment, “without giving away too much of the secret sauce.” The first, widely obtained video of Rice dragging his unconscious fiancée (now wife) out of the elevator “didn’t leave much of a mystery” as to what had happened inside the elevator, Levin said. What interested him more was the degree to which “the NFL wasn’t jumping” on the situation — which only got more interesting “as time went on.”
The inside-the-elevator story, Levin said, “kind of found us.” TMZ got the second video first “because we have good sources and good reporters.” It was something “we were pursuing and looking to get the minute we knew about the incident,” he said.
One reporter wondered why TMZ puts its watermark on that video, and others. Levin was happy to answer — maybe in part because it gave him the opportunity to note Gumbel’s former employer, NBC News’ Today show, sometimes uses TMZ video.
“We’re not stupid,” Levin said, explaining that TMZ’s uses watermark so that news outlets that show the video are compelled to give TMZ that plug even when they don’t intend to credit it with breaking the story. That behavior happens “all the time, not just random websites – television shows,” he said. These days, Levin added, when news outlets call them up asking, “do you want to sell” the video, he tells them, “No, just take it.” It’s “one of the ways we’ve branded TMZ — when you see our video on GMA or Today, you’ll see our bug, because it’s good business.”
Levin also had some fun likening TMZ to Katie Couric and Matt Lauer.
“TMZ is more of a personality than a voice,” he said, and that as such, it knows how to wear both silly and serious hats – like Couric and Lauer, who he said are “the people I really admire who I think have done this in broadcast. They can handle a serious story and they can get silly,” he said. “They have figured out the dimensions of what they do. … And that’s kind of the way we feel.”