Court TV investigates new look

Cabler's first tagline to be unveiled August 25

“CSI” has a lot to answer for. Jerry Bruckheimer’s runaway hit has spawned a cottage industry of scripted and reality TV shows hell-bent on dramatizing the way experts deploy scientific know-how to investigate a crime.

The show has also inspired the rebranding of an entire network. Court TV announced that on Aug. 25 it will, for the first time, add a tagline to its name: Court TV — The Investigation Channel.

Led by its signature show “Forensic Files,” Court TV’s primetime original series from here on out will take the point of view of the investigator, according to Art Bell, executive VP of programming and marketing for the network. “Our goal is to follow the investigators as they seek out the best forensic science techniques to catch criminals.”

Court TV’s new strategy, however, could rub some cable operators the wrong way, says Mike Egan, a cable-programming consultant and partner in Renaissance Media. In Egan’s words: “I could see an operator saying: ‘Hey, wait a minute. You’re going in a direction that’s not spelled out in my affiliation contract.’ ”

One big reason why so many cable operators signed up for Court TV in the first place, Egan says, is that “it was offering differentiated programming that subscribers couldn’t get on broadcast TV.”

But by wrapping itself in the cloak of the Investigation Channel, Egan says it’s possible Court TV may face some tense negotiations when its contract runs out with cable operators, who pony up $100 million a year in license fees to the network, according to Kagan World Media.

These operators could go on the attack, demanding rate discounts based on the gripe that the network has scorned its original programming mandate in favor of serving up imitations of whatever is trendy on broadcast TV.

The investigator-as-hero concept goes in cycles, says Bob Thompson, head of media studies at Syracuse U. Twenty-five years ago, Thompson says, network-primetime shows like “Quincy, M.E.” and “Columbo” harvested vast audiences every week eager to watch the good guys apprehend criminals through brainpower rather than brass knuckles.

After going out of favor for a couple of decades, the trend is back because “television has gotten good at producing these shows again,” Thompson says, referring not only to “CSI,” but “Law & Order,” “Without a Trace” and nonscripted shows like A&E’s “Cold Case Files,” Discovery Channel’s “New Detectives” and Court TV’s “Body of Evidence.”

With its current lineup, more people are watching Court TV than ever before. Original series like “Forensic Files” and “Dominic Dunne’s Power, Privilege & Justice” have catapulted Court TV’s primetime ratings into a regular slot among the 20 highest-rated basic-cable networks. For the second quarter of 2003, the number of Court TV’s total viewers shot up by 16% and its adults 18-to-49 demo by 19%.

These numbers translate into robust growth in advertising revenues for the network, which climbed from $110 million in 2002 to a Kagan-projected $128.2 million in 2003.

“All of our research shows that viewers are more interested in the investigation of the crime than the crime itself,” says Henry Schleiff, chairman and CEO of Court TV. “People love to see the peeling back of the onion, the solving of the puzzle.”

But Bell adds that “we’re still keeping our commitment to continue providing full courtroom coverage during the day.”

And with Kobe Bryant, Robert Blake and Scott Peterson among the high-profile defendants facing criminal trials in the near future, Court TV could set new ratings records in the next year or so not only in primetime, but in daytime as well.