When Court TV hit the U.S. cable airwaves in July 1991, it was all about trial coverage…or the discussion of trial coverage, or the highlights of trial coverage. Steven Brill, the channel’s founder, had spied an opportunity in America’s fascination with watching the wheels of justice turn, and jumped on the specialized-programming bandwagon.
In its original incarnation, Court TV attracted ‘very loyal viewers who couldn’t seem to get enough of the minutia,’ says senior VP of programming Sheilagh McGee, ‘but I think for many years just being a trial network was too specific.’ New president and ceo Henry Schleiff apparently agreed. Last October, under Schleiff’s leadership, Court TV broadened its mandate and launched a re-branding campaign, complete with a new tagline: ‘Inside Crime and Justice.’
Art Bell, Court TV’s executive VP of strategic planning and programming explains the channel’s new direction this way: ‘Since the core audience was as interested as they were in courtroom coverage, we recognized that part of what they’re interested in is the crimes involved…. We realized we could broaden [the network] to the crime genre as well, noting that our core, defining attribute is the fact that this is real programming.’
Beginning in January 2000, several new, hour-long reality series will be introduced to fill the 8 p.m.-9 p.m. slot each night of the week. ‘We’re piloting one series, called Fatal Attractions, which will be in a magazine format and looks at well-known people who have come through the legal system,’ McGee says. ‘We’re doing another series, called Anatomy of Crime, which is like Cops meets Frontline. We’re trying to get that feeling of being on the front lines with the people involved with crime stories and legal issues, but really giving them a rigorous going over.’ Two other series are currently in development.
While Court TV tends to produce much of its programming in-house, several of the new series will be commissions. At press time, Court TV execs were looking at several Fatal Attractions pilots submitted by outside doc-makers. So far, it’s undecided whether all episodes of the 13 x 60-minute series will be awarded to one producer or farmed out to several. McGee says Court TV’s range for pilots is US$100,000-$250,000 per hour.
Anatomy of Crime will be produced by John Langley of L.A.-based Barbour/Langley Productions. Langley co-created the Fox reality series Cops, which will air on Court TV in the 8 p.m.-9 p.m. slot until the new series start up in January.
All in all, more than 80% of Court TV’s air time is devoted to non-fiction. Live trial coverage continues to fill the daytime hours (9 a.m.-6:30 p.m.), followed by Pros & Cons (a live legal news show, 6:30 p.m.-7 p.m.), Johnnie Cochran Tonight (a talk show hosted by O.J. Simpson’s former lawyer, 7 p.m.-7:30 p.m.) and Snap Judgement (a lighter look at small claims courts, 7:30 p.m.-8 p.m.). Crime Stories, Court TV’s first original doc series, occupies the 10 p.m. time slot. Snap Judgement and Cochran Tonight are repeated between 11 p.m. and midnight. Since the New York-based channel is a single-feed, the primetime lineup is repeated at midnight for west coast viewers (who are three hours behind).
‘It’s a great time to be doing these kinds of stories and documentaries,’ McGee says. ‘The broadcast networks aren’t doing them anymore, it’s more news magazines.’ What about competition from the other cablecasters? ‘Documentaries that deal with crime issues tend to attract a lot of the other cable networks, like A&E and Discovery. But their mandate is broader, so they have to go off and do other things. Ours is very specific.’
Where will Court TV go from here? ‘The series we are developing are designed to pull out of the pack. You won’t circle the dial and see Discovery, History Channel and Court TV, and not be able to tell which one you’re on because they’re all docs,’ says McGee. ‘In five years, we want to be known for reality-based programming. That’s where we see the value and the brand expansion.’