Court TV aims for broader audience

Renamed truTV, cabler has new focus

Is Court TV getting fed up with lawyers, detectives, judges and other denizens of the criminal-justice system?

The answer is: Yes and no.

No, because a big chunk of Court TV’s primetime schedule will continue to feature lots of shows about cops who investigate and arrest people, and prosecutors who put them on trial.

But Court TV is also taking the radical step — at a time when its ratings are climbing — of changing its name to something that will take a while getting used to: truTV. The estates of Truman Capote and Harry Truman can rest easy: Tru is simply true without the “e.”

Court TV, a top-15 cabler aiming to diversify its aud by adding younger viewers, is not the only network that has recently changed its name and redefined its identity. In the last year, Outdoor Life Network morphed into Versus, the Biography Channel shrunk to simply Bio, INHD changed to Mojo, and in 2008, Discovery Home will become Planet Green.

Under the truTV label, which takes effect Jan. 1, the network will ratify plans already under way to venture outside the confines of the courtroom, police lab and penitentiary, adding primetime shows on such unlikely jobs — for Court TV — as oil-rig wildcatters and storm chasers who truck their cameras into the heart of a tornado. There’s also “The Real Hustle,” about scams and how to both avoid them and pull them off.

“We want to increase our reach and bring in new audiences,” says Marc Juris, general manager of Court TV.

But don’t say “reality TV” in the presence of Juris, who says most people think of reality TV as “rounding up six celebrities, shoving them into a house and watching them drive each other crazy.”

Instead, Juris prefers the word “actuality,” which he defines, in part, as unusual stories about people under pressure.

“Black Gold,” set in Texas and focusing on wildcatters who work as high-risk oil-riggers, comes from Original Prods., which turns out two big unscripted hits, Discovery Channel’s “The Deadliest Catch” and History Channel’s “Ice-Road Truckers.” Clearly, Time Warner’s Turner Broadcasting, which took over Court TV 14 months ago, wants to tap into the audience for shows like these, even if it means pushing past the boundaries of the network’s previous obsession with cops ‘n’ robbers.

Court TV is aware of the danger that lies ahead when a network deviates from its prior programming genre. Cable operators can use these identity shifts as a weapon, charging that a network is not living up to its contract when the time rolls around for renewal of the carriage agreement.

The highest-visibility breach-of-contract suit cropped up four years ago when Time Warner Cable sued Cablevision’s American Movie Classics for scheduling movies produced after 1993. Cablevision countersued, and both sides eventually settled out of court.

These carriage negotiations are crucial to Court TV, which harvests about one-third of its total revenues from cable-operator license fees, a strapping $90.7 million in 2007, according to SNL Kagan. (Advertising dollars make up the lion’s share of the remaining two-thirds.)

One cable-op exec said he’d prefer the network stick to criminal justice and stop cannibalizing series formats of other networks like Discovery and A&E.

But Court TV can make the compelling counter-argument that TV series ranging outside the brand, which kicked off earlier this year and include “Beach Patrol: Miami Beach” (about lifeguards) and “Most Shocking” (featuring footage of things like soccer-stadium riots and highway accidents), have helped to boost its ratings in the last year or so.

As an example, for the third quarter, Court TV’s ratings skyrocketed by 39% in total viewers and by an average of more than 30% in the three key adult demos (adults 18-34, 18-49 and 25-54). That should please cable ops, which get two minutes in each hour of Court TV programming to sell locally.

Even more important, Juris is convinced the new series slated for the first quarter will help to lower the average age of Court TV in primetime, which now hovers around 51.Court TV’s ratings could take another leap if the writers strike continues to shut down production of scripted series on other outlets. As the broadcast networks and general-entertainment cable networks fill their schedules with reruns, viewers may gravitate to program services like Court TV, which is unaffected by the strike: It has no plans to carry scripted series, whether originals or reruns.

Besides, says Juris, who needs scripted when a rookie Court TV show like “Ocean Force,” the network’s highest-rated series in September, is scoring with viewers “because it deals with lifeguards who are passionate about what they do and keep us safe from danger?”

It also doesn’t hurt the Nielsen ratings that the lifeguards are doing their rescue work during Spring Break at one of the favorite destinations of bikini-clad coeds,Panama City Beach.

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