Court TV has been in ratings trouble since the end of the O.J. Simpson trial. With the start of the impeachment trial, it’s sure to make a comeback. Right? Not necessarily. This time, the networks and other cable channels will be getting in on Court TV’s act, leaving it just one of many channels willing to devote much of their schedules to President Bill Clinton’s legal difficulties.
“Court TV is such a victim of its own success,” said television reporter Terry Moran, who left Court TV in 1997. “A lot of other networks cover the law now. That’s why I’m at ABC.”
So what’s a once-glorious cable channel to do? New Court TV president Henry Schleiff, formerly a lawyer at the hoity-toity firm of Davis Polk & Wardwell, hopes to win back the viewers without sacrificing the identity established under Court TV founder Steven Brill. But, actually, he’s willing to alter the cable network’s DNA for better ratings.
” This was what we were looking for,” Mr. Schleiff said in his office the other day, handing over a sheet with the ratings. And if the improvement came from an instance of stunt programming–a full day of all Homicide reruns–well, at least there was some movement there. Mr. Schleiff, a former law review editor at the University of Pennsylvania Law School, started work last Oct. 1. The new prime-time schedule he devised began, partially, on Jan. 1. “First of all, we said, forget law, let’s go wider–which is justice,” he said. “And then, at the same time, not only should we be providing information, we should be providing entertainment.”
The network’s nightly offerings now include a half-hour legal newsmagazine, Pros & Cons ; reruns of the NBC crime drama Homicide ; an abbreviated Johnnie Cochran talk show that now features celebrity guests such as Roseanne and Chris Rock, as well as courtroom combatants; and an hourlong documentary series called Crime Stories .
Would he go so far as to air the syndicated Cops , if he had the chance? “It’s a show we would consider,” said Mr. Schleiff, who crafted Montel Williams’ show and aired Jerry Springer’s during stints at Viacom Inc.’s broadcasting and entertainment groups and the USA Network’s production arm, respectively. Mr. Schleiff has also cut a deal with Lionel (né Michael Lebron), a former prosecutor and talk-show host with a schtick, for a talk show called Snap Judgment . “It’s kind of an MTV-visits-the-lower-courts,” said Mr. Schleiff. He has also had discussions with celebrity-crazed journalist Robin Leach and John Walsh, the host of America’s Most Wanted . Gavel-to-gavel trial coverage still fills Court TV’s daytime schedule.
Not everyone at Court TV likes the new mix. Jeff Ballabon, the head of Court TV public affairs who negotiated with judges to get cameras in courtrooms, recently left for Channel One, the national school channel. But others don’t mind the change. “You get tired of seeing your employer described as ‘the moribund cable network,’” said one employee who asked not to be named.
Mr. Brill, the founder, had lofty aspirations for the channel. It would be one great ongoing civics lesson. Then came O.J. Simpson. The notorious trial made the civics lesson go down all too easily, and suddenly Court TV found itself in the odd position of leading the charge of the tabloid press. It also drew great numbers. At the end of the O.J. freak show, however, Mr. Brill showed he was serious indeed about the public good: He decided to broadcast live for two weeks from The Hague for the International War Crimes Tribunal, complete with hours of translated Serbo-Croatian.
“Brill said you can’t call yourself Court TV and not broadcast this,” recalled Mr. Moran.
The O.J. crowd tuned out, and the ratings numbers looked like mere hash marks.
Mr. Schleiff is also considering a show similar to the A&E Network’s Biography . In fact, his programming strategy owes a lot to A&E. In picking up old Homicide episodes, he’s mimicking A&E’s acquisition of Law & Order repeats.
He said he plans to use a video diary from one senator during the impeachment proceedings, but said he doesn’t plan for the network to devote as many hours to the impeachment case as it did for the Simpson trial–which could leave viewers confused.
Barry Scheck, who frequently appeared on the network during Steve Brill’s days, said: “You’d hope that they’d get ahead, put together a huge educational effort, say, by educating the public on the impeachment of Andrew Johnson. If there were a two-hour special on Court TV, with all the scholars talking all about all the history of impeachment, you’d watch that, right?”
Mr. Schleiff said that he had turned down multiple offers to re-enact the 1868 Johnson trial.
“I flipped it on last night,” said Ronald Goldfarb, author of TV or Not TV: Television, Justice and the Courts , “expecting to see the impeachment hearings–what else could it be? But what I saw instead were reruns of Homicide . I just don’t need Court TV for Homicide reruns.”
But the new president thinks Court TV needs to go a little less C-Span for its own survival. “It’s as simple as some version of cowboy and Indian,” Mr. Schleiff said. “I think people want to see the good guy chase the bad guy and catch him. I think it’s as simple as that.”
Merger Moves Closer; White & Case Looks Ahead
The partners of White & Case, who for the past two months have been wooing Brown & Wood to create a landmark mega-firm, discussed the proposed merger en masse at a retreat in Key Largo, Fla., from Jan. 6 to Jan. 8. The firm’s accountants reviewed Brown & Wood’s books in December. According to one close observer, some White & Case partners have been concerned about shortcomings in Brown & Wood’s San Francisco office.
The Clinton Jury
N.Y. Law checked in with a half-dozen trial consultants, the sort who pick apart juries and turn the trial into a piece of theater, to see how they would earn their keep during the Senate impeachment trial. Half confessed they felt pretty useless, since the jurors in this case have pretty much already confessed their bias. “Talk about high crimes and misdemeanors,” said Sonya Hamlin, the Manhattan-based author of What Makes Juries Listen Today . “Every one of these senators has committed perjury. They have all sworn on the Bible to be impartial, but they all belong to a party, and they all know how they will vote.”
Amid such a farce, go with common sense.
“You simply want to make sure that you don’t lose any of them by anything you do,” said consultant David Ball. “If the White House moved for an immediate dismissal, I think some of the Democrats would be offended that the White House is not going along with the way they want to do it. Because it puts them in a position of having to vote for things they don’t want to vote for.”
After that, just play to television. Put Bill Clinton on the stand if one or two votes defect, said Dr. Louis Genevie, president of Litigation Strategies in midtown. “I think he would want to defend himself. That would give him the spotlight, where he likes to be,” he said. The President would be safe from tough cross-examination: “Anything that is done to smear the President in front of the entire world, and not have a practical result of removing him from office, is self-defeating.”
You can reach N.Y. Law by confidential e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.