TMZ targets celebs with Webcams

It would seem that the 24-7 Hollywood gossip machine couldn't get any more invasive, but live Webcams are adding a whole new dimension to celebrity tracking. Smile, you're on a bar Webcam

Stefanie Olsen Staff writer, CNET News
Stefanie Olsen covers technology and science.
Stefanie Olsen
3 min read
On L.A.'s famous Melrose Avenue, Pink's Hot Dogs serves up chili cheese dogs to throngs of hungry people every day, including actor regulars like Danny DeVito and Laurence Fishburne. That puts the hot spot in the crosshairs of Hollywood's newest gossip-hound trend--live Webcams.

Celebrity gossip site TMZ.com regularly roves around Los Angeles setting up Webcams for hours at a time outside places like Pink's and upscale restaurant The Ivy so that it can catch stars on camera. The video is streamed live to the TMZ audience. In January, the site attracted nearly 11 million visitors, up 77 percent from the same period a year ago, according to ComScore.

At least one L.A. restaurant has complained about the Webcams, saying that the sidewalk is private property, according to TMZ executive producer Harvey Levin, who would not divulge the name of the restaurant. (Calls to The Ivy for comment about the Webcams were not returned.) But Levin said his two cameramen fired back that it was public property and fair game, then went on filming.

As for the managers at Pink's, any publicity is good publicity.

"It's not like Spago, where Sidney Poitier goes to dinner every night. With our place, you just never know if you'll see a celebrity," said Tom West, operations manager at the hot dog stand, which has been at the same location for 65 years. "But it's great for people to see us on TMZ. I don't see a downside to it."

It would seem that the 24-7 star-gossip machine of blogs, magazines, and TV couldn't get any more invasive, but Webcams are adding a new dimension to the trade. Celebrities, or those even linked to them, hardly have a claim to privacy in public. But if the trend keeps up, no stone may be left unturned. It's like celebrity-focused reality TV for the Web.

Levin said he wanted to try using Webcams long ago, but he only first got started in October, when the singer Britney Spears' was scheduled to appear in court for visitation rights with her children. In recent months, he made the roving Webcam a regular feature of the site for an hour a day, with cameras at the Westminster Dog Show one week or a sidewalk in Venice Beach the next.

"When you see celebrities pop into the picture all of a sudden, it makes it fun," Levin said. "It's fun and raw and fresh, and it fits the personality of our site."

For example, during Spears' hearing, a random man walked up to the Webcam wearing a dollhouse on his head, Levin said. "He was hilarious, and it got more attention than Spears. A lot of it is not scheduled." In another example, pregnant actress Soleil Moon Frye, best known for her role as Punky Brewster, walked up to the camera in Larchmont Village near a Starbucks in Los Angeles.

Levin said that TMZ will think of new celebrity spots every day, and then send the crew out on location. The TMZ crew might spontaneously drive over to Pink's during lunch hour, for example. TMZ doesn't set up stationary Webcams, but rather has the crew hold them up to avoid any trouble. The video is sent wirelessly back to TMZ.

"We just want to be nimble," he said. The biggest obstacle, he said, is technology. Despite the relatively low cost of buying a Web camera, creating a good experience with streaming video can be tough, and bandwidth costs aren't cheap, he said.

Last week TMZ hosted a Webcam outside the Lost Hills Sheriff's station in Los Angeles, so that visitors to the site could watch Barron Hilton, the little brother of celebutante Paris, be released on $5,000 bail for a drunken driving charge. But more than celebrity sightings, the cameras captured the shark-like culture of celebrity hounds.