Gossip blogs get casting call

Does pop culture really need another celeb-saturated TV show? Apparently so--just ask TMZ.com and Perez Hilton.

Before leaving for the office Tuesday morning, I left a note for my housemates on top of our television. "Won't be home till late. I'm DVRing TMZ TV and the new Perez Hilton show. Please do not delete the recordings. This is for work, not a joke."

I'm not one for celebrity gossip. I try to stay on top of what's being talked about, but I don't keep up with Britney's latest epidermal exposures or whether Jessica Alba is single, and the only time I watch the E network is when it's playing on the TV in front of the only unoccupied treadmill at the gym.

But the syndicated TMZ TV, which premiered on Monday, and the VH1 series What Perez Sez, which introduced its first event tie-in on Tuesday night with footage surrounding the weekend's MTV Video Music Awards, piqued my interest as a digital-media junkie.

TMZ TV is the boob-tube offshoot of the AOL-owned celebrity gossip blog and video portal TMZ.com, and blogger Perez Hilton (real name Mario Lavandeira) requires little introduction among pop culture aficionados. Last year, the big trend in the new fall season was bringing broadcasting to the Web--now, it's bringing the Web to the TV screen.

Turning a Web site into a TV show, thus far, doesn't have a particularly good precedent. The hallmark example tends to be the unsuccessful tie-in talk show NBC introduced for online women's hub iVillage when parent company NBC Universal bought the site.

"Honestly, I watched it a couple times and I almost had the same reaction as when I saw Britney (Spears) perform at the VMAs," said David Hauslaib, editor and publisher of media industry dirt site Jossip, which touts itself as "the gossip's gossip sheet." "My hands are over my face, and I'm cringing because it's the most awkward, awful TV programming."

The problem with the iVillage TV show didn't have anything to do with the concept of spinning a televised program off a Web site or blog, Hauslaib said. Rather, the show was plain terrible. "They incorporate online chats into their live programming? That's the most boring idea ever," he said. NBC has pulled the iVillage show and has hinted at plans to revamp it.

The creators of TMZ TV and What Perez Sez are hoping to avoid that trap. But it's not easy to translate a conglomeration of written gossip and YouTube videos into a half-hour (TMZ) or hour-long (Perez) TV program.

TMZ TV's strategy seems to be to resemble the Web site as much as possible. High-profile celebrity headlines are interspersed with amateurish video footage of second-rate celebrities grocery shopping, picking up baggage at airports, and getting caught speeding on Sunset Boulevard. It's fast-paced, like a car-chase cop show. The nibble-sized bits of content, many only a few seconds long, are well-suited to short attention spans.

"Where gossip blogs have succeeded online is making a market out of the mundane."
--David Hauslaib, editor and publisher, Jossip

"Where gossip blogs have succeeded online is making a market out of the mundane," Hauslaib said. "TMZ does break big stories, whether it's Mel Gibson or Lindsay (Lohan) and DUIs, but most of its contents are B-listers leaving clubs and the paparazzi shooting them. That can be a very popular video, and we're seeing all of a sudden that there's a market for it."

But on TMZ TV, you can't surf through the B-list content. The challenge was evident Tuesday night, when time was devoted to a traffic violation on the part of a celebrity I'd never heard of. And TMZ obtained a sonogram of a former Full House star's fetus. Who cares?

TMZ TV had its moments. There were brief (too brief, in my opinion) segments of TMZ staffers charting out which headlines were the juiciest and worthiest of coverage. On Tuesday night, which happened to be the sixth anniversary of the September 11 terrorist attacks, TMZ TV also took a camera crew out to the streets outside Los Angeles' notorious club scene to see whether passersby were more likely to know the year in which the September 11 attacks took place or the names of Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie's kids. (OK, so it rips off a Jay Leno bit.) The footage of tipsy club-goers asking "Um, 2002?" for the first question and then promptly chirping "Maddox and Zahara!" for the second was amusing and disturbing.

Indeed, keeping the online content separate from the televised program is what makes this season's other "gossip blog show," What Perez Sez, surprisingly palatable. It's hosted, with interview segments for TV. And VH1 has made an uncharacteristically smart decision in restricting the show to hour-long specials surrounding events like the MTV Video Music Awards rather than a regular time slot.

Plus, something that you won't gather from PerezHilton.com, which is dominated by images with crude Microsoft Paint drawings on top of them, is that Mario "Perez Hilton" Lavandeira is also surprisingly witty. His unconventional interviews (attempting to bake cookies with famously underweight singer Amy Winehouse, spraying pink hair dye all over effeminate British pop star Mika) are much more watchable than shaky paparazzi footage.

It's almost inevitable that in their continued quest for new-media success, more broadcast and cable networks will attempt to snap up bloggers and Web properties, from entertainment to politics to finance, and turn them into TV shows. But Jossip's Hauslaib said that's not always a good idea. "What I'm fearful (networks) might do is get these shows on the air just because they think they should be there," he said.

It's also important for the online properties to remain the centerpiece, Hauslaib said. Neglect them or change them too much, and fickle audiences will find another place for their Brangelina photos.

Perez gets it right by not using PerezHilton.com as a crutch to support the TV special and emphasizing that he's not abandoning his Web site and its readership anytime soon.

Lavandeira crafted a (I have no idea if this was true) tale about being banned from the Video Music Awards press room, and emphasized his guerrilla credentials. "Suck down your energy drinks and turn off your computers," he exclaimed in Tuesday night's special, "because I stormed the red carpet, I snuck into rehearsals, I trolled the bathrooms, (and) I'm not looking for sex."

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