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Robbin’ leeches infest Hollywood!

In the golden age of gossip, widely syndicated tattletales like Walter Winchell and Hedda Hopper reached huge numbers of newspaper readers and thus they had real power over the fate of celebrity careers. Then, broadcast TV started eating away at newspaper audiences, cable TV started eating away at broadcast TV audiences.

There was too much competition for gossip to truly thrive -- media outlets needed celebrities to attract readers and viewers, and exposing the tawdriest details of their binge-drinking and plastic surgery disasters was not the best way to obtain their cooperation. Sucking up on the red carpet replaced keyhole-peeping; gossip grew as toothless as a loaf of Wonder Bread.

Then, the Internet happened. The visionaries behind Gawker were the first to capitalize on the huge appetite for old-fashioned gossip that had been left unserved in the Infotainment Age. With virtually no overhead, Gawker didn't need to suck up to stars to move copies off the newsstand, so it was free to be as mean and venomous as it liked. Countless imitators followed, and suddenly, gossip was flourishing again, as hundreds of bloggers competed to see who could publish the least flattering photos of formerly chubby anorexics and formerly anorexic chubbies.

Eventually, major media conglomerates took notice and began to offer their own versions of such sites. In December 2005, AOL, collaborating with Warner Bros. subsidiary Telepicture Productions, launched TMZ.com. Fortified by a real budget and AOL's prodigious promotional power, the site was an instant hit. Now, it's migrated to TV with a nightly syndicated nighlty show that currently reigns as TV's scuzziest, longest half-hour.

The scuzz is intentional. In an effort to brand itself as a populist force, an outsider representing the little people, TMZ employs all the techniques that Hollywood has been using for the last twenty years or so to convey indie authenticity -- jerky, jittery hand-held cameras, grungy typefaces, exaggerated sound f/x that lend the sort of deliberately cheesy "professionalism" that is the hallmark of the amateur.

In most cases, such attempts end up looking artful in their affected artlessness. TMZ, however, looks so convincingly cheap and slapdash you may want to wash your hands after watching it. It's so smudgy and sticky and twitchy, in fact, that it will likely have you yearning for the perky, polished vacuousness of E.T. and Access Hollywood before the final credits roll.

Unfortunately, sycophancy just plays better on TV than poisonous envy does. TMZ moves at a breakneck clip -- there's only so many seconds you can spend on a story when its subject is Angelina Jolie's shockingly skinny legs or Bai Ling's crazy dancefloor moves -- and yet the show drags like an arthritic walrus at a sack-racing contest.

Part of that is because TMZ plasters its logo in the center of the screen every thirty seconds or so, and spends way too much time documenting the editorial meetings of its acutely unphotogenic staff. But it also has to do with tone. In the TMZ universe, celebrities are always stupid, selfish, ugly, and mean, and so every story becomes the same story, and after a while, you begin to wonder why TMZ is so obsessed with these disgusting, trivial, unimportant people. And why you're wasting your time watching TMZ. As Britney goes on another super-indulgent shopping spree, you begin to yearn for air, sunlight, hope. Luckily, Mark McGrath and the eternally upbeat team at Extra are only a channel away.

A frequent contributor to Las Vegas Weekly, Greg Beato has also written for SPIN, Blender, Reason, Time.com, and many other publications. Email Greg at gbeato@soundbitten.com

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