Truth, Justice and the art of brand building

TV docu vet continues the non-fiction fight

To understand the significance of the Justice brand of A&E’s programming, it pays to talk with Bill Kurtis.

Of the five series that fall under this brand — “American Justice,” “Cold Case Files,” “City Confidential,” the upcoming “The First 48” and the venerable “Investigative Reports” — Kurtis hosts three.

He came to A&E after a 30-year career at CBS, having left the Eye when it shut down its documentary unit. While “60 Minutes” would continue the doc format by tackling three subjects in an hour, “extremists like me that wanted to stick with documentaries on one subject had to go elsewhere,” he says.

The strength of the Justice series can be seen in the numbers. Viewer impressions for “Cold Case Files,” which focuses on unsolved homicide cases, are 26% higher than A&E’s primetime average, with an average of 523,000 in the network’s original target 25-54 demo.

(A&E has a deal with CBS that at the conclusion of the Eye’s similarly named “Cold Case,” the net promos the cabler’s show.)

“American Justice,” which seeks to shed light on criminal issues, is 25% higher than prime on average. And “City Confidential,” which focuses on shocking crimes in seemingly safe communities, is 14% higher.

“American Justice” debuted way back in 1992, and “Cold Case Files” is a relative newcomer, at six-years-old. And yet when Nancy Dubuc became vice president of documentary programming development for A&E, she felt that the Justice series needed few major changes. One, however, was to stop production on the 12-year-old “Investigative Reports” series.

“My job is to make sure we continue to be a leader into the next decade,” she says. “We feel we’re a creator of this genre.”

While Dubuc says Justice shows aren’t likely to have a large increase on A&E’s schedule, her team has spawned “The First 48,” which is produced for A&E by Granada Television and joins the schedule this spring. It will follow detectives within Philadelphia’s homicide team during the first 48 hours of a murder case.

“It’s a pivotal period of time,” she explains. “If they don’t have a suspect within the first 48 hours, the percentage of crimes that get solved drops 70%.”

Overall, Dubuc’s trying to add more immediacy to the shows, and her team constantly updates existing episodes to make sure they’re accurate when they go on air.

As part of the drive to stay fresh and relevant, Dubuc started adding one-hour specials on people in the news, such as Jessica Lynch, Martha Stewart, Elizabeth Smart and Michael Jackson. Eight specials produced so far have averaged 601,000 viewers in the 25-54 demo — 45% more than A&E’s 2003 prime average. And one of them, on Laci Peterson, had an average impression of 722,000 — 74% above the primetime 25-54 norm last year.

Kurtis has noticed another kind of viewer response for the Justice shows

“Any crime show gets letters from convicts,” he says. “But we started getting really well-reasoned, well thought-out letters from penitentiaries. I’m happy to see it’s spread outside.”