Court TV Net Finds Itself On A Major Roll

Steven Brill, founder and CEO of the Courtroom Television Network, couldn’t help smiling. On the screen in front of him was a parade of vignettes from some of the decade’s hottest criminal trials, all of them to some extent Court TV-driven: William Kennedy Smith, Rodney King, the Menendez brothers… and O.J. Simpson.

As each courtroom-video scene dissolved into another, Brill was riveted. Then he smiled some more.

That afternoon, New York magazine had hit the news-stands with a cover story titled “The 100 Smartest New Yorkers.” Brill made the list.

Court TV is a hot ticket. Since it launched in about 4 million households in July 1991, its subscriber base has shot above 17 million, and in 1995 it will almost certainly surpass 20 million. The net’s staff has ballooned from about 40 at the outset to more than 200 today. The country is litigation-mad and O.J.-crazed, and Court TV, the lead player in the live TV drama of this or maybe any year, is on the case.

But though the net is unquestionably a rising star, there’s a strong element of doubt about how long its phenomenal stretch of luck can last. The headline questions surrounding Court TV can be summarized by one: How many Simpson trials are out there, anyway?

Many say Brill is just lucky – so lucky that the Simpson trial opened on the same day as the National Assn. of Television Program Executives convention. The Court TV booth at the Las Vegas confab was a scene of gridlock as crowds of TV execs, in town to buy programming, slammed into each other to get a glimpse of the trial.

On that day, Court TV’s total-day ratings increased by 1,300% from its “average” Monday showing. It amounted to a 1.3 rating – a blip on the cable radar, but big news for a service that’s in less than 20% of U.S. TV homes.

Court TV refuses to release its ratings, and asks Nielsen to do the same. That was a Brill decision to “de-sensationalize” his net’s trial coverage and to avoid what he calls “crowing.”

But Brill crows on cue anyway. “Our recognition factor right now is significantly better than we had a right to expect when we started,” says Brill, who’s been a lawyer, a reporter, a columnist and now a CEO. “We’ve proved to the world that we’re not some tabloid TV show looking for free programming.”

Brill, 44, who’s regarded as a solid journalist and entrepreneur, gets somewhat lower marks for his management skills. Associates variously describe him as “tyrannical,” “a screamer” and “Jekyll and Hyde.”

“I am fairly demanding, it’s true,” Brill acknowledges. “I really do insist that everybody here make a complete effort to be fair, thorough and persistent in their journalistic efforts.”

He pointed to last week’s now-legendary camera shot in the Simpson courtroom, when an alternate juror was momentarily glimpsed by Court TV’s ubiquitous lens, causing trial Judge Lance Ito to threaten banishment of cameras from the proceedings.

“Nobody here has been penalized for that,” Brill said. “Some of the stories about me are either apocryphal or very old.”

Court TV could be poised for some big times, and not just because the cabler has the “pool” camera crew in the Simpson courtroom (thus getting the Court TV name virtually enshrined alongside the trial of the century).

Court TV, as a basic-service cable channel, has become a highly prized commodity among cable operators who have been liberated by the Federal Communications Commission’s “going-forward” rules, which allows the operators to add new products on expanded-basic cable tiers. The sudden surge in Court TV’s drawing power means that cable operators who are exempt from anti-growth regulations are able to pluck the service for new programming tiers.

“I’d have to say that we’re probably the biggest beneficiary of the going-forward rules,” Brill noted. “Being in the right place at the right time (with the Simpson case) didn’t hurt.”

In 1995, nearly 8 million subscribers are expected to get access to Court TV for the first time. And ad sales have risen steadily every year since the 1991 launch. In 1994, net ad revenues were at $12.8 million, up 50% from a year earlier, and total revenues surged from $22.5 million to $31.8 million, according to industry sources.

Court TV’s ownership structure also doesn’t hurt, though it’s somewhat mysterious. The net is divided among some of TV’s biggest players, all with vast cable resources and deep pockets. At Court’s birth, industry figures showed that Tele-Communications Inc. and Time Warner Entertainment, the country’s two biggest cable operators, each owned an estimated 33% of the cabler, with a partnership of NBC and Cablevision holding the other third.

Today, Brill says the ownership remains “roughly equal” among the partners. But Time Warner is the majority partner in American Lawyer Media, Court TV’s managing partner, which publishes 10 legal publications and is headed by Brill. ALM has an option at any time to buy 20% of any other shareholder, so Time Warner, he concludes, can be “imputed” to be a 55% owner of Court TV.

A report last week from New York securities firm Furman Selz listed Time Warner’s share of Court TV as valued at $132 million, which would put the net’s overall value at $240 million.

Meanwhile, Court TV is making a name as a purveyor of highly charged programming. Call it journalism or something else, but with the huge visibility of the Simpson trial, the net’s critics are getting plenty of ammunition.

Among their targets is “Prime Time Justice,” the network’s two-hour-plus wrap-up show with taped highlights and a half-dozen legal experts rating the day’s courtroom events.

“What’s wrong with trials being entertaining?” asks Leslie Crocker Snyder, acting Supreme Court Justice in New York State Supreme Court and a guest expert on Court TV’s Simpson coverage. “They have been since people went to public hangings.”

“This has nothing to do with Steve Brill or Court TV,” says Steven Stark, a commentator on CNN and National Public Radio who’s also a lecturer at Harvard Law School. Stark has strong misgivings about putting TV cameras in courtrooms, yet he gives Court TV high grades.

“It just has to do with the trends of the times. CNN, after the Persian Gulf war, essentially went back to where it was before. When there’s another big trial, the audiences will be back. By and large, I have nothing but praise for Court TV. But it’s a very small niche.”

Indeed, Court TV’s closely guarded ratings show that the audience niche is just inching along, and that a Simpson mega-trial is for now the only kind of programming that can put Court TV into the stratosphere.

In December, Court TV trial coverage included extensive live reportage from the Sidney Zion hospital malpractice case in New York, as well as a Kentucky multiple-murder multimillion-dollar inheritance case in California and a kidnapping and assault case from Georgia. For the month, Court TV averaged a 0.1 rating, which amounted to barely 20,000 homes. Along came the official O.J. opening last week, and the household rating soared to a 1.3.

“There of course are certain elements of luck involved here,” said a California media researcher. “Court TV happens to find itself in a position to take full advantage.”

When he launched Court TV, Brill made proposals to Time Warner in which he referred to famous trials from the ’80s that, he remembered, “a Court TV-like channel could have covered.” They included several organized-crime cases and the Joel Steinberg murder case.

At the same time, at least two other virtually identical nets were being proposed for launching, but Court TV won out.

The trials it carries are in the public domain, so Court TV’s vulnerability to future competition is real. CNN saw its ratings from the first day of the Simpson trial leap to a 1.9, from a previous total-day average of 0.6 in 1994.

“From time to time, luck is a factor here,” Brill acknowledged. “No one can predict that someone like O.J. Simpson would be accused of killing his wife, or that a Rodney King case would become what it did.”

The net has carried more than 300 trials, and Brill says “it’s just factually untrue” that the programming is heavy on cases dripping with sex and violence.

“We’ve spent something like eight times more air time on a Sidney Zion case than we did on the William Kennedy Smith case. Our biggest category percentage-wise – other than murder – is civil-rights cases.”

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