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How TMZ uses tech to get in your face

A new digital-video system helps TMZ, one of the hardest-charging celebrity news sites, get stories up first.

Harvey Levin, TMZ's managing editor, was among those at the company who recognized that the Web and digital technology could give it an advantage over rivals. Craig Mathews/Warner Bros.

Alec Baldwin, Lindsay Lohan, and Kramer from Seinfeld may despise, but that hasn't stopped the celebrity news site from bagging more blockbuster scoops the past two years than any competitor.

TMZ's growing reputation as Hollywood's in-the-know and in-your-face news agency was built by working the phones, developing sources and basically out hustling rivals, say executives. What isn't well-known, however, is that the company may also possess a technology edge.

TMZ, which launched as a Web site in 2005 and moved into TV last September, is among the first to build a tapeless, high-definition TV newsroom from the ground up, according to managers.

Other newsrooms have migrated from videotape to digital, but TMZ, perhaps best-known for its reporting on Seinfeld star Michael Richards' racist tirade, was designed for the Digital Age. Not only does this enable TMZ cameramen to shoot using lighter, less expensive cameras, but editors don't have to rip up entire TV shows each time they make changes, says Jim Paratore, TMZ's executive producer.

For these reasons, TMZ often has stories up before rivals and operates more efficiently, executives say. As chilling as this may sound to some, TMZ could be the prototype of a 21st century news agency.

"The business has changed, and the business model of these shows has to change," Paratore said. "You have to figure out how to do these shows more efficiently...We had the opportunity to marry technology with the way we produced the show and create a model that fit the revenue available today."

Technology, in a way, gave birth to TMZ.

The founders recognized distributing news over the Web meant they could post stories, photos, and videos of drunken starlets or brawling actors almost as soon as they obtained them.

TV shows like Entertainment Tonight and Access Hollywood, on the other hand, had to wait until their shows aired. People magazine had to wait until the next issue hit newsstands.

TMZ sees about 10 million monthly unique visitors to its Web site.

Sure, TMZ's clips weren't as slick looking as those broadcast by some of its rivals. But managers discovered that the audience liked it better that way, Paratore said. For example, the now-famous clip of Paris Hilton and friend Brandon Davis disparaging part of Lindsay Lohan's anatomy while leaving a nightclub, isn't great photography. The footage is grainy and dark.

Yet, the clip of a catty Hilton was viewed more than 2.5 million times and marked TMZ as a player in the Hollywood-gossip industry. Producing video for the Web taught TMZ managers an important lesson: People want unfiltered information about celebrities. Pretty images and clever editing are less important.

"What has changed because of the Web is the whole expectation of what TV is," Paratore said. "People just want to see raw video. They don't want it all beautified and packaged, particularly entertainment news because they think it's all B.S."

After learning that, Paratore and Harvey Levin, TMZ's managing editor, made plans for their tapeless newsroom.

For help, they went to Warner Bros. and its emerging-technology unit. The group focused on designing a low-cost system geared for speed and simplicity.

Engineers opted for off-the-shelf hardware--such as a 32-terabyte storage area network (SAN) from Hewlett-Packard and a bunch of 8-core Mac Pros for editing--rather than spending money on expensive production tools designed for the broadcast industry, said Spencer Stephens, vice president of product technology for the Warner Bros. group.

"It's the same sort of hardware that a financial institution or anybody else using a large 32-terabyte SAN might use," Stephens said. "More traditionally, we would have gone out and chosen something specifically designed for this marketplace, but because this is a relatively small market it would have cost more to get it up and running."

Translation: TMZ had less money to spend and that forced it to be more resourceful.

Sony HVR-Z1U CNET Networks

Perfect. The company regularly competes against deeper-pocketed network shows, and loves to see itself as a giant killer, Paratore said. If less money meant TMZ had to squeeze more traffic and TV ratings out of fewer resources, so be it. Instead of buying the bulky $30,000 shoulder-held cameras favored by many broadcasters, TMZ settled on the $5,000 Sony Z1U, an HD handheld cam.

The Z1U is a half step from being a consumer product, but managers found that the camera fit with their guerrilla-journalism style.

We've all seen those scenes of reporters, photographers and cameramen swarming around stars outside courtrooms or nightclubs. The Z1U is much easier to handle in these situations than a larger camera.

Another benefit of a smaller camera is it allows TMZ's shooters to be less intimidating when approaching celebrities.

"You can't go around with big cameras, a sound guy, and a multiple-person crew," Paratore said. "You need a smaller footprint. It's all about being a fly on the wall."

Going digital also streamlined editing and content management, which is vital for breaking-news stories.

The system Warner Bros. came up with enables producers to see raw footage, make rough cuts from their desktop, and then assemble timelines for the show as they write their scripts. The system gives producers precious extra minutes to complete work on a story segment.

Traditionally, the segments of a TV news show were combined and assembled onto a tape, Stephens said. The show had to be completely finished by the time it started broadcasting. It wasn't possible to change anything once the show started being aired, he said.

"Now, we're editing individual stories and plugging segments into a video server," Stephens said. "It's very similar if you got an iTunes playlist. You can start the music, but you can also push new pieces into the playlist on the fly. Rather than having to have my story finished a half hour before the whole show airs, now I actually need to finish a couple of minutes before my particular segment of the show airs."

This kind of flexibility is handy when your top news subjects can get busted for a DUI day or night.