After years of trials and tribulations that threatened its
future, the verdict is in: Courtroom Television Network has staged a remarkable comeback
during the past 12 months.
Under the leadership of Henry Schleiff, who joined Court TV
as president and CEO just over one year ago, the network's primetime ratings are
skyrocketing -- the reward of a strategy that broadened both the trial network's scope and
Distribution for the service is growing, up 22 percent this
year alone to just over 40 million subscribers by year's end.
And there's even a nice buzz about the network among cable
operators and on Madison Avenue.
"Clearly, this is a network that is beginning to
strike a chord with an increasingly larger viewership," Schleiff said. "We're
really firing on all cylinders."
That wasn't the case during the early part of last year,
when Court TV's then-owners -- NBC, Liberty Media Group and Time Warner Entertainment --
were continuing to squabble over the network's ownership structure and direction. As they
bickered, Court TV, founded by legal publisher Steve Brill, was rudderless, without
funding to buy programming or to market itself.
Without the lift of a big trial, the network's primetime
ratings were stuck at a minuscule 0.1. And Court TV's disheartened staff began fleeing the
But finally, last May, Time Warner and Liberty bought out
NBC's interest in the network for $70 million. And Schleiff -- a veteran of Viacom Inc.
and Studios USA -- joined Court TV last Oct. 1 and was handed $100 million from Time
Warner and Liberty to invest in programming over two years.
The spending so far -- particularly the acquisition of Homicide:
Life on the Street reruns and reality-based Cops reruns -- has paid off
"They have had an amazing year," Time Warner Inc.
president Richard Parsons said. "It's an amazing turnaround led by Henry. There are a
lot of talented people there ... but they were leaderless. He infused the service with
optimism and re-energized the whole place. They've got some momentum now."
The jury is still out, however, about how much momentum the
network has. Tough challenges lie ahead. During the past few months, the network lost two
of its bigger hosts and name talent -- Johnnie Cochran and radio personality Lionel -- as
it continued to tweak its program lineup. Overall, Court TV's record in terms of producing
original primetime shows has been uneven, and it has yet to create a breakout signature
Early next year, Court TV will be put to the test when it
introduces a host of original programming that's now in the works, including a new second
documentary strip. It remains to be seen if any marquee shows emerge.
As part of that slate, in January, former Fox News Channel
anchor Catherine Crier, who joined Court TV last week, will begin hosting a midday show
meant to augment the network's live daytime trial coverage. Officials see a role for her
in primetime, as well.
Court TV's battle to get to the next level in terms of
distribution -- to hit 50 million analog homes -- will not be an easy one, either, even
though the network said it has an aggressive package out to operators, which now includes
some free carriage and upfront cash launch fees.
"In the year 2000, we want to further polish our brand
identity," Schleiff said.
Early on in his tenure -- around the time of last year's
Western Show -- Schleiff suffered a heart-rattling setback when MediaOne Group Inc.
dropped Court TV in roughly 1 million homes. But the tide turned at the National Show in
Chicago this past June, when the MSO put Court TV back on, lauding the network for its
When Schleiff came on board a year ago, the game plan was
to build on Court TV's distinct daytime programming -- live trials -- by expanding into
"crime and justice" fare, with an emphasis on original documentaries.
But Court TV's master stroke came when it made Homicide the
linchpin of its primetime lineup at 9 p.m., luring in viewers, and its ratings began to
rise accordingly. In October, Court TV did a 0.5 in primetime, a 400 percent increase over
a year ago, according to Nielsen Media Research. Most recently, Court TV has even hit a
0.6 in primetime, according to Schleiff.
Cable operators and ad buyers like those kinds of
improvements. "They needed regular programming to get an audience," said
Kathleen Haesele, executive director of broadcast for Advanswers Media Inc. "I agree
At The Lenfest Group, director of product management John
Murawski said, "They found that in order to widen the base of their audience, they
need to go to entertainment-based programming." That's a good strategy as far as
Murawski is concerned, since, he added, "The last thing we want is a network nobody
Jedd Palmer, a media consultant and former head of
programming at Tele-Communications Inc., likes the changes he's seen at Court TV, too.
"They've put it on the map," he said. "They
gave the channel legs and some notoriety. People are starting to stand up and take
But there have been rough patches in terms of programming.
Attorney Cochran saw his show undergo a retooling as Johnnie Cochran Tonight.Then,
at the end of September, he left Court TV to join a Manhattan law firm.
"It was a mutual parting of the ways," Court TV
executive vice president of strategic planning and programming Art Bell said.
An offbeat half-hour comedy show hosted by radio
personality Lionel at 7:30 p.m., Snap Judgment, was canceled in late September.
Bell described Snap Judgment as "a great show," but he said that as Court
TV got deeper into its crime and justice mode, "we just decided it was not a good
fit." Schleiff described the show as expensive, adding that it was more like a
New York Post TV critic Adam Buckman noted that Court
TV has had "a spotty record" developing original programming. Buckman panned Snap
Judgment when it debuted, and he said Cochran proved to be a poor celebrity
interviewer on his talk show.
"And none of those shows was really appointment
viewing," Buckman added. "Court TV seems to experiment with original programming
and not have the success of the off-network product. They've had no breakout original
Bell has high hopes for Court TV's 10 p.m. documentary
strip, "Crime Stories,"to evolve into a marquee, signature series for
"It shouts to the viewers, 'This is reality television
with a crime and justice bent,'" Schleiff said.
Under the Crime Storiesumbrella, Court TV airs and
tests a variety of original documentary shows, including the recently well-received
special on teen violence, Virus of Violence.
"Original documentaries are going to be our
strength," Bell said.
For early next year, Court TV will air a 13-part series on
the mob, Lords of the Mafia,as well as a show from Cops executiveproducer John Langley, Anatomy of a Crime, under the Crime Storiesbanner.
Another show, Fatal Attractions, will also debut. And Bell added that Court TV is
working on creating a second original documentary strip for 7 p.m.
Schleiff added that Court TV was considering two shows --
one that looks at the guilt or innocence of incarcerated inmates, and another that he
described as "Biography meets Crime Stories."
Crier's new daytime show, set to air 1 p.m. to 2 p.m.
weekdays, will premiere in January.
"We want to give daytime a personality," Bell
said. Court TV is still working on the exact daytime format, but it will include guests
discussing crime and justice stories of the day.
Fred Graham started hosted a half-hour weekly show, DC
Insider, in September,but Court TV officials called it an experiment that is
Court TV recently renewed a weekly 11:30 p.m. viewer
call-in show, Live from Cell Block F,which features tough-guy North
Carolina sheriff Gerald Hege. The audience also gets access to inmates. The show has been
averaging a 0.44 rating, a 300 percent improvement in the time slot from a year ago.
"We're really excited about it," Bell said.
"Hege is a fascinating personality. And people want to understand what makes
Court TV's public-affairs efforts -- such as its Choices
and Consequences campaign and the "Day of Diversity" initiative it kicked
off last month -- and its trial coverage continue to make it unique among networks, which
is a draw for cable operators.
"We are way ahead of our business plan," Parsons
said. "We have a new programming formula without losing the distinct identity Court
TV has on the cable dial."
Court TV executive vice president of affiliate relations
Bob Rose has set a distribution goal of 50 million homes by the end of 2000. "We have
a very aggressive deal, with a substantial amount of marketing support and free
carriage," he said.
The package can include cash launch fees. Rose won't
discuss how much they are, but one source put them at a modest $3 to $4 per subscriber.
Court TV's license fees will hit $37.7 million this year,
and they are projected at $40.9 million next year, according to Paul Kagan Associates Inc.
Net ad revenue this year is estimated at $18.5 million, with $20.5 million expected next
year, Kagan said.
Parsons said Schleiff's formula for Court TV's success had
three prongs: Schleiff had "the right vision," "the right leadership
energy" and "a dollop of luck," in that he was able to acquire Homicide.
"The new formula works," he added.