TruTV on ratings roll

Former Court TV cabler scores with rowdy, randy fare

Turner Broadcasting is home to one of cable’s fastest-growing channels, and it isn’t TNT or TBS.

TruTV has been on a ratings tear since the cabler formerly known as Court TV underwent a rebranding and refocusing of its primetime programming strategy in January 2008. As legal briefs gave way to more rowdy and randy fare, the cabler has leapfrogged over more established competitors and now consistently ranks among basic cable’s top 15 most-watched channels.

The network’s growth is all the more notable because it’s competing in the very crowded field of unscripted original series. While many cablers focus heavily on tales of true crime and larger-than-life personalities, TruTV has carved its primetime niche in series that put the spotlight on dumb crime and everyday unsung heroes, with a dash of conspiracy theory/aliens-among-us melodrama thrown in for spice. The shows mostly adhere to a template carefully overseen by TruTV’s programming mastermind, Marc Juris, who is exec veep and g.m.

TruTV is one of cable’s best reinvention stories, even if some of its rowdy shows are a hard sell to upscale advertisers.

“Operation Repo” follows a heavily tattooed, solidly built family of car repossession agents in L.A. (albeit with re-enactments). “All Worked Up” tags along with bouncers, bounty hunters, process servers, parking-enforcement officers and others who deal with flying fists, verbal assaults and clients with rage issues on a regular basis.

The network has taken clips of drunk and belligerent people getting busted by law enforcement officials to new heights with shows like “Over the Limit” and “Party Heat.” These “Cops”-esque ride-alongs travel to places like Florida during spring break or Sturgis, S.D., during the town’s famed annual motorcycle rally. This makes for colorful visuals, like the sight of a security guard at the Sturgis rally dispatched to instruct a naked woman on a chaise lounge that she has to “cover the bottom.”

Sturgis is also the setting for “Full Throttle Saloon,” which documents the highs and lows of running what is billed as the world’s largest biker bar. Michael the owner is a dreadlock-sporting small-businessman just trying to make ends meet and get his heavy-metal bands to show up on time, while his wife and marquee exotic dancer, Angie, boasts of having “the most photographed ass in the world.”

“Hot Pursuit” is just what it sounds like — a smorgasbord of car chases. “Las Vegas Jailhouse” is self-explanatory. “Bait Car” ups the ante by tempting car thieves with specially wired, ultra-cool cars that are equipped with cameras and microphones to capture every minute of the break-in and, of course, the eventual bust. “Black Gold” follows the race among workaday Texas roughnecks (whose drawl is so thick it often requires subtitles) to find oil in the flatlands of the Lone Star state.

And then there’s the staple that predates the TruTV makeover, “The Smoking Gun Presents: World’s Dumbest,” a showcase of stupid criminals, numbskull sales clerks, unlucky sports spectators and other oddball incidents caught on vid. An august panel of tabloid staples — including Tonya Harding, Danny Bonaduce, Todd Bridges and Leif Garrett — offers color commentary.

A variation on the drunks and dopes theme is “Conspiracy Theory With Jesse Ventura,” which made a splash for TruTV in its debut late last year. The show sends the intrepid former Minnesota governor and a team of “experts” investigating allegations ranging from secret billionaire societies hatching “global death plots” to the never-ending speculation about every facet of 9/11 attacks. “I’ve heard things that’ll blow your mind,” Ventura promises in the show’s general intro.

It’s kinda mind-blowing that some of the “theories” probed on the show — global warming a ploy to enrich purveyors of eco-producers? Government-funded bunkers for the rich to survive the 2012 apocalypse? — would find a platform through a mainstream media conglom.

Juris makes no apologies for “Conspiracy Theories,” though he emphasizes that the show always presents dissenting points of view on its subjects.

“Jesse doesn’t say that 9/11 was an inside job,” Juris says. “All he’s doing is asking questions from an informed point of view.”

TruTV is working up a companion piece for “Conspiracy Theory” that veers into extraterrestrial turf. “Disclosure,” set to bow next year, will follow a group of true believers who chase down tales of UFO sightings, alien landings and the like.

From Juris’ perspective, TruTV’s growth with its new mix of programming is a reflection of our video-saturated times.

“Part of our success is based in what has happened culturally, which is that everyone is now a videographer,” Juris says. “Everyone is able to capture those great moments of real life, and there is such a fascination right now with creating your own content. … We were in the right place at the right time to tap into that.”

There is an undeniable sleaze factor to some of TruTV’s shows, most of which are played for laughs. But Juris has found that there are a few key ingredients that make for a successful skein. One of them is the depiction of a regular Joe or Jane who is doing a thankless but vital job, whether it’s a cop busting drunk drivers or a process server delivering divorce papers to a thug or a bouncer who keeps an agitated wrestling fan from hurting other patrons.

The push to refashion the programming thrust of Court TV began after Time Warner bought out Liberty Media’s 50% stake in the channel for $735 million in May 2006. Juris says they sought to build on the topics that already engaged its aud — crime and courts, investigations, good cops putting away bad guys — but in a way that pumped up the action to draw younger viewers, including women, accustomed to the wilder clips available on YouTube and the like.

“There’s an outrageousness and a ridiculousness (to the material), and we do go for the comic relief,” Juris says. “But there’s always a consequence to this activity, and the people we’re following are putting themselves in a position of danger because they have to be to do their job. If you’re a parking officer writing tickets and someone is yelling at you, you never know where the anger is going to end. But that’s the way this person makes a living. We always go for that conflict. It’s great drama.”

For sure, it’s rarely the routine traffic stops and cat-rescuing calls that make the grade, as has been the case since the dawn of “Cops.”

But there is a limit-test for the material that gets on the air, Juris says. Arrests and altercations that are scary-violent won’t make the cut. The car repos are never the vehicles of people who are truly in dire straits.

“We do the people who are just irresponsible, or think they can just say, ‘Screw you,’ and get away with not paying,” Juris says. “We want viewers to be able to feel comfortable and say, ‘I pay my bills; they should pay theirs.’ We always want to show that good always triumphs over evil.”

Advertiser interest in TruTV has grown along with its ratings, though some of its content is undoubtedly a nonstarter with some marketers. TruTV held its first-ever solo upfront presentation in April, at which Turner Broadcasting sales, distribution and sports prexy David Levy told the crowd that 70 new advertisers had signed on during the past year.

“Where there is success there will be advertisers,” Juris says.

TruTV’s growth in primetime (the cabler’s 6 a.m.-3 p.m. block remains devoted to trial coverage) has been fueled by a strong response from hard-to-reach male viewers in the 18-49 and 25-54 demos. TruTV’s median age has dropped an astonishing six years, to 46 from 52, since 2007. For the first half of this year, the channel is averaging more viewers in primetime (1.16 million) than Lifetime, TLC, MTV, Bravo, VH1 and E! In adults 18-49, TruTV is up 7% over the same frame last year to an average 551,000 viewers — topping TLC, Lifetime and Bravo, among others.

The cabler was founded in 1991 by media maven Steven Brill, with backing from Time Warner Cablevision, NBC and Liberty. (Brill has said he no longer watches the channel.) Today, it’s among cable’s most widely distribbed channels with a subscriber base of 93 million homes.

Juris has been with Court TV since 2004, coming from Cablevision’s Rainbow Media unit, where he ran the music cabler Fuse and worked in original programming at AMC during an eight-year tenure. He was upped to the top job as the cabler prepared for the TruTV relaunch in December 2007.

One of the many changes wrought by TruTV’s heat is that Juris no longer has to pound the pavement to get producers to bring him show pitches.

“We went from selling producers to producers selling us,” he says.

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