Courtroom Television Network

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Courtroom Television Network

The Courtroom Television Network (Court TV) is a cable network devoted to explaining law to the layperson. Founded in 1991, this novel venture in television programming was a long shot: few thought a twenty-four-hour-a-day, seven-day-a-week diet of live trials and legal analysis would succeed. Within two years, though, the network ranked fourth in the Nielsen Company's daytime cable ratings. It built this record with gavel-to-gavel coverage of civil and criminal trials, including a string of highly publicized cases in the early 1990s, as well as with a mixture of regular programs that examine in simple language how the legal system works. This nuts-and-bolts approach coincided with—and, to an extent, helped influence—controversial changes in legal journalism. Lawyers, judges, and the media are divided over whether the public is served or misled by the Court TV approach, and this debate only intensified after comprehensive coverage of the O. J. Simpson murder trial in 1995.

Changes in the media and the law paved the way for Court TV. From the 1960s to the 1980s, reporting on legal affairs was largely the business of two markets: specialized publications for lawyers and daily newspapers. The former was highly detailed; the latter took a broad, general approach. Television took the most sparing look at the law, usually in small slices of news broadcasts. But as state laws increasingly permitted television cameras in state courtrooms, the role of television increased. At the same time, another trend shook up television itself: the public's appetite for so-called reality programming, a format popularized by shows such as the National Broadcasting Company's Unsolved Mysteries and the Fox Network's Cops and America's Most Wanted. Cheaper to make than dramas and sitcoms, this programming subsequently glutted the airwaves in the form of cops-and-criminals shows, tabloid journalism, and "infotainment" (the combination of information and entertainment).

Court TV was created by legal publisher Steven Brill. Known as an innovator, Brill had founded American Lawyer magazine in 1978. Neither as technical as law journals nor as cursory as the mainstream press, the trade magazine critically profiled attorneys and law firms, dealt with matters such as how juries reach decisions, and generally modeled its methods on investigative journalism. It emphasized the inner workings of the law—taking an approach that, ten years later, television was avidly pursuing with law enforcement. In July 1991, with the financial backing of Time Warner, Brill launched Court TV. The network initially broadcast an obscure Florida murder trial but soon had high profile cases to cover, including the prosecution of murderer-cannibal Jeffrey Dahmer and the trials of accused parent murderers Erik and Lyle Menendez. Court TV's viewership slowly increased.

In addition to essentially live trial broadcasts—delayed by ten seconds to preserve confidential information about jurors, witnesses, and attorney-client privilege—Court TV developed legal affairs programs. In Context, an analysis show hosted by Arthur Miller, a Harvard Law School professor, was an intellectual look at legal and social issues. Instant Justice, in contrast, turned its cameras on the often emotional scenes played out in night courts by problem drinkers and traffic violators. Other programs condensed entire trials into two-hour highlights (Prime Time Justice) or followed accused persons from jail to court (The System) in what the network called "the ultimate lesson on how the judicial process works, outlining legal failures and successes through the lives of those who are players in the system." Its also featured a weekly debate program, Washington Watch, which featured guests such as U.S. attorneys general Janet Reno and edwin meese iii.

Steven Brill's decision in 1997 to sell his stake in Court TV to his partners, Time Warner and Liberty Media, changed the direction of the channel. CEO Henry Schleiff decided to expand into new areas, worried that the network's reliance on trials was turning it into a niche network like C-Span or the Golf Channel. He also disliked that ratings were dependent on the availability of a "hot" trial. For example, ratings dropped dramatically after the o.j. simpson trial ended—down 80 percent by 1997.

Court TV moved to purchase programming from the broadcast networks to syndicate to its viewers. Homicide: Life on the Street and NYPD Blue were two of its early acquisitions. Schleiff also hired Catherine Crier away from Fox News Channel to host her own news and talk show.

Court TV also decided to get more into original programming. In 2000, the network introduced Forensic Files, which profiled actual criminal cases and the scientific sleuthing done by the coroners, medical examiners, and physicians who solve them. The launch of Forensic Files occurred at the same time that CBS television premiered its fictional forensics-based hit CSI: Crime Scene Investigation. The resulting public interest in all things forensic made Forensic Files a smash hit by Cable Television standards. The series became so popular that NBC "borrowed" it for its own network schedule.

Buoyed by its success with Forensic Files, Court TV expanded its original programming. Among the new shows it introduced was Dominick Dunne's Power, Privilege and Justice, a look at cases involving people from high society hosted by the noted author, and From the Case Files of Dayle Hinman, a real life criminal profiler. It also began to show original movies, based on one of the many crime documentaries Court TV produces each year.

As a result of all this, five years after Brill's departure, Court TV's ratings had increased 10-fold. It had moved from being available in 30 million homes to being available in 70 million homes. And advertising revenue grew to $64 million, from $15 million in 1998.

Despite this success, Court TV did not completely abandon televising court trials. In 2002 it went to court in a failed effort to televise the trial of terrorist suspect Zacarias Moussaoui. Trial broadcasts and analysis still make up a substantial part of its programming for the 2002–03 season, including its entire schedule from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. on weekdays. Schleiff has promised this will continue. Trial analysis is "what distinguishes Court TV," he says. "The combination is what makes us different."Although Court TV continues to broadcast programming around the clock, many local cable affiliates only air its programming during particular times of the day, such as during prime time, day time, or early morning hours.

Further readings

Court Television Network. Available online at <www.courtv.com> (accessed November 20, 2003).

Johnson, Steve. 2002. "Even as It Seeks Terror Trial, Court TV Looks Beyond the Gavel." Chicago Tribune (January 7).

Larson, Megan. 2002. "Out-of-Court Settlement: Ratings, Sales Improving as Court TV Moves away from Trials, Acquired Shows." Mediaweek (July 29).

Cross-references

Broadcasting; Cameras in Court; Simpson, O. J.

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