A jocular and energetic Harvey Levin stirred up an audience of lawyers Saturday with predictions of doom and gloom for traditional media.
“I don’t think there’s going to be television in 10 years,” Levin told the crowd of several hundred at the 39th Annual UCLA Entertainment Symposium, “and maybe [not] in five years.” Convergence of media and of television devices — an Internet/television fusion that Levin calls Intervision — “will make studios less relevant.” And print? “Newspapers [and] magazines are going away,” he added.
“Technology will overtake you and put you out of business” unless you adapt, said Levin.
The TMZ founder pointed to TV news as an example: “It’s all about hospice care,” he said, referring to the advertising. “It’s all pills and death. Have you seen Xbox advertised on network news?”
As to the network news audience, he noted, “It’s all 60-plus. You know where that ends, right?”
Indeed. But perhaps the second-most startling revelation from the proprietor of the mixed online/television operation is that he was initially bearish on digital. Coming off the cancellation of his show Celebrity Justice, he said, “I could not [have been] less interested” in the Internet.
“I went to Mexico and was literally in this margarita haze,” he said, then thought of an online news operation and how it could break stories first.
And so it went. “If we had started TMZ as a TV show, we would have failed in six months,” Levin added. In the wake of the site’s success, the operation has expanded to include TV shows and live bus tours of Los Angeles and New York.
To the delight of tourists, celebrities like to interact with the bus tour. “It’s almost like an African jungle safari,” Levin said. “They’ll come up to the bus.” And that, of course, leads to video that can be deployed on TMZ’s website.
Also coming up on TMZ is advertorial for movies: “We’re going to do preroll in our voice,” Levin said.
Is TMZ a news operation? Levin was unapologetic. “I program highbrow/lowbrow,” he said. Kim Kardashian and Kayne West at Taco Bell — “Is that really news? No.” But it got great traffic, he added.
“Do you pay for video?” asked an audience member at Saturday’s lunch, where Levin served as keynote speaker for the conference.
Yes, said Levin. “Guess what, everybody pays for video. NBC, CBS, ABC — they outbid us.”
Why aren’t you a union shop, asked another audience member. “We have a newsroom where everyone is on the show,” replied Levin — 50 out of 250 people. “We could not make economic sense of doing the show [with a union],” he said, adding that he had talked to a union (which he didn’t name) and that they had agreed.
But perhaps the most surprising moment in Levin’s visit came when he encountered this reporter after his talk. “I didn’t know there’d be media here,” Levin said a bit nervously. “Be nice to me.”
And that, coming from the embodiment of TMZ, was pure gold.