Stepping (Partway) Off the Court

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When founder Steven Brill left Court TV, and Henry Schleiff stepped in as CEO on Oct. 1, 1998, the network counted 32 million subscribers.

The crime-and-justice network counted around 41,000 viewers, on average. Its primetime programming combined rehashes of daytime trial coverage with commentary from pundits like Jack Ford and the late Johnnie Cochran.

Now — as Court TV heads to full ownership by Time Warner Inc. and imminently joins the Turner Broadcasting System Inc. stable of channels — the network Schleiff has led for almost eight years reaches about 86 million subscribers. On average, nearly 900,000 viewers are drawn to its programming, with primetime now devoted to legally themed entertainment specials and original series. It has become a top-20 basic-cable network, averaging a 0.8 household rating.

Court TV Networks as a whole may be valued at $1.5 billion, when Time Warner buys out the 50% owned by its partner, Liberty Media Corp., according to one individual involved in the transition. The announcement of the terms of that buyout could come as soon as today.

“He has completely kicked ass,” said Larry Aidem, CEO of Sundance Channel and a longtime friend.

The next phase of Court TV’s development, however, will come without Schleiff as CEO. One industry executive knowledgeable about how Court TV will be folded into Turner said Schleiff made the decision to relinquish his position as chief executive, rather than relocate to the programmer’s base in Atlanta. He remains chairman, and, next month, he’ll move from the network’s midtown Manhattan headquarters to the Time Warner Center at Columbus Circle.

“There are discussions about whether Henry will stay at Court or have something else at Time Warner,” one network official said last week.

Court TV, Time Warner and Turner executives all officially declined to comment last week, because the deal had not been completed. Schleiff declined an interview request. Multichannel News first reported Schleiff would shed the CEO title last Wednesday, on its Web site.

Some of Court TV’s 400 employees are likely to lose their jobs in the transition of management to Turner’s team of cable network operators. Potentially hardest hit, according to individuals at the company: affiliate-support managers. Marketing, production and on-air talent is likely to fare better, these individuals said.

During Time Warner’s earnings conference call last Wednesday, company chief operating officer Jeff Bewkes lauded Court TV’s programming, branding and marketing capabilities, but said “there are clearly some improvements in the business we can do by using some of the Turner capabilities in either back office in terms of cost or in distribution in terms of affiliate representation.”

One Court TV veteran described the office last Friday as “quiet as a tomb, but it was business as usual. Everyone was in their office. We haven’t heard anything about when the deal will be done or when we’ll hear from Turner.”

Court TV — under three-way ownership, including NBC, when Schleiff arrived in 1998 — broke away from the trial coverage and legal punditry that characterized the network when Brill, founder of The American Lawyer magazine, started the network in 1991.

Among other things, Schleiff shifted the network’s focus in primetime, adding more entertainment fare to gain viewers. Syndicated reruns of Homicide: Life on the Street, Profiler and NYPD Blue (in a deal with Turner’s TNT) joined the schedule, as did reality shows like Cops and America’s Most Wanted.

Later, Schleiff’s team ratcheted up original productions, scoring with movies like Guilt by Association and such series as Body of Evidence, Psychic Detectives and Forensic Files.

Outgoing and often in the public eye, Schleiff also gets credit for the network’s “Choices and Consequences” public affairs initiative. He has championed efforts to extend cameras into more state and federal courtrooms, including the U.S. Supreme Court. Now, 683,000 households watch the channel in primetime.

“Court TV has been a great success story,” Rainbow Media Holdings president Josh Sapan said last week. “Many of us in cable have admired what Henry and his team have built.”

Italia Weinand Commisso, senior vice president of programming for Mediacom Communications Corp., said, “Henry put Court TV on the map and always had the will, the passion and deep desire to accomplish the goal that his corporation set for him.”

Aidem said Schleiff came to Court TV at a challenging, transitional time — news articles placed the company at “death’s door” and Discovery Communications Inc. had just eyed taking it over.

With morale low, Schleiff “galvanized the place,” Aidem said. “People really do crave leadership in troubled or uncertain situations and he’s a great leader.’’

Over the past three years, according to Liberty Media’s annual reports, Court’s revenue has increased an average of 20% per year, gaining 15% in 2005 to reach $255 million. Operating cash flow has risen an average of about 15% per year, and gained 10% in 2005, to $57 million.

Broadcasting & Cable estimated the network’s value at $600 million when the Schleiff era began.