TMZ’s Harvey Levin, '75, Uses Law School Skills Every Day

Meredith Heagney
Law School Office of Communications
November 8, 2013

When TMZ creator and celebrity news king Harvey Levin was a student at the Law School, he thought he was going to spend his career as a lawyer. Of course he didn’t foresee, graduating in 1975, that he would someday found one of the world’s most successful celebrity news operations.

But despite the apparent mile-wide chasm between what he thought he’d do and what he does, it isn’t as different as one might think, Levin said during an October 14 appearance at the Law School full of colorful stories.

“I haven’t spent an hour in my business life where I haven’t used what I learned here,” he said to a classroom crowded with students. “I’m keenly aware of what this place did for me.” In fact, Levin added, he was very emotional when he spoke at the Law School three years ago. “I can’t really describe (the feeling)…this place changed my life in ways I never would’ve dreamed of while I was here.”

Levin, Executive Producer of TMZ, spoke on “How to Use a Law Degree to Start a Business and Make it Successful.” He said that throughout his career, he has used the skills of critical thinking and advocacy that he learned as a law student. Advocacy teaches you how to be a salesperson, which is vital in his line of work, he said. For example, shortly before his speech he was in a meeting where he successfully sold one of his TV shows to a large station group.

In his introduction of Levin, Dean Michael Schill said that, “Harvey has had a tremendously varied, interesting, and unusual career.” He has practiced and taught law (the latter under Soia Mentschikoff at the University of Miami), and he was an entertainment journalist who covered the O.J. Simpson trial. He hosted the TV series, “The People’s Court,” a forerunner of “Judge Judy” and other daytime legal shows. Later, he created “Celebrity Justice,” a syndicated TV show that broke a lot of news in its three years but was relegated to terrible time slots. All of that experience, of course, led to his most successful enterprise yet, TMZ.

Levin spoke about coming up with the idea for TMZ.com while in a “margarita haze” in Mexico. The strategy behind TMZ’s success, he said, is in large part because he used major media outlets who didn’t take TMZ seriously to brand the site. They saw TMZ as a curiosity, not competition, so they’d invite Levin on to talk about stories. Soon enough, the big players saw they were losing eyeballs and clicks to the rapidly growing TMZ.

That shift was no more obvious than the day Michael Jackson died, Levin said. TMZ.com reported the death before the Los Angeles Times, and “all of a sudden, we were a threat to (big media)…but we used them for years to brand us.”

That’s an example of always thinking several steps ahead of your competition, which is crucial in business, Levin said. He also talked about the importance of finding symbiotic relationships. TMZ’s website, TV shows, and tour bus all feed off of and promote one another, he pointed out. And for an upcoming reality show he’s producing, he’s convinced two normally competitive networks to cross-promote. (TMZ’s TV show is on Fox; the new show will be on the CW.)

“What we’ve done is, we’ve looked in front of our nose, beyond it, and we’ve tried to establish this plan,” he said. “For me, that’s what I learned in Law School, it was to think into the future. Most people, for whatever reason, they just don’t.”

During the Q&A after the speech, Levin had more knowledge for students. He told them to start a business with an idea that is truly creative (“If you copy something, it won’t break out”) and not to root against their competition. “Other people succeeding helps broaden the interest in the subject matter,” he said. The idea that “if somebody else succeeds at this, we lose…is such a flawed way of doing business.”