New York -- The trials and tribulations of Courtroom
Television Network took another twist last week, with the beleaguered channel now off the
selling block to possibly be run by Turner Broadcasting System Inc.
But MSO officials and programming experts alike were
questioning how even Turner, with its vast expertise and marketing muscle, can solve Court
TV's nagging problem as a narrow-niche service: how to boost its anemic ratings.
In a last-ditch effort to avoid selling the network, Court
TV's partners have apparently taken a time-out in their feud over its future and
taken it off the market, for now. Time Warner Inc. -- parent of TBS Inc., and one of Court
TV's three owners -- is putting together a five-year plan for the network, which
would involve a restructuring of the partnership, according to sources close to the
matter. The other partners are Liberty Media Group, which is Tele-Communications
Inc.'s programming arm, and NBC.
The Time Warner plan, if approved by the parties, would
entail Turner taking over management and adding Court TV to its stable of networks so that
it could apply its programming, affiliate-sales and ad-sales resources to jump-start the
Cable operators generally agreed that having Turner's
infrastructure behind Court TV, which has been hamstrung by the owners' squabbling,
would be an obvious positive.
'I'd be glad to see some resolution to it,'
said Frank Hughes, senior vice president of programming for the National Cable TV Co-Op.
'They've struggled in the past year, not knowing their fate and being paralyzed
... They're like lame ducks.'
Said Patty McCaskill, vice president of programming at
Charter Communications Inc., 'Turner certainly has an excellent track record with
networks and a strong affiliate-marketing team. Court TV has faced a lot of challenges
because of its ownership and funding ... It's not that there aren't talented
people there -- it's just that their hands have been tied.'
Last week, Turner officials came to the Manhattan
headquarters of Court TV, which reaches 32.2 million homes, to meet with officials at the
network and to look at some of its books.
'The Turner people are here and are trying to
determine if they should play a role in managing Court TV for the partnership,' said
Thayer Bigelow, interim CEO of Court TV.
According to Time Warner spokesman Ed Adler,
'It's [Turner managing Court TV] an option. It's something that's
being discussed. But we're looking at all of the options. Nothing's been
Late last year, Court TV's partners retained Bear
Stearns & Co. to weigh offers for the network, which had been valued at $300 million
to $450 million. The partners initially were only looking to sell Court TV to nonmedia
companies -- parties that weren't competitors to partners NBC and Time Warner. Now,
that sales effort is on hold.
Some buyer interest had been stirred for Court TV.
Discovery Communications Inc. had very preliminary discussions, but it never made a bid,
sources said. DCI officials declined to comment.
In addition, Tom Rogers, president of NBC Cable, was
approached by a financial group that wanted to bid on Court TV, sources said. Rogers, who
could not be reached for comment, reportedly agreed to be part of the group, and he
promptly informed NBC president Robert Wright.
Rogers, who had been part of a committee overseeing Court
TV, then excused himself from taking part in that committee to avoid the appearance of a
conflict of interest, according to sources familiar with the situation. Scott Sassa, a
Turner veteran who is now president of NBC's TV-station group, took Rogers'
The change of membership on the partner committee
overseeing Court TV -- including the addition of Turner alumnus Sassa and the
participation of TCI president and chief operating officer Leo J. Hindery Jr. and Time
Warner president Richard Parsons -- has apparently led to friendlier talks regarding the
network's future. TCI declined to comment, and Sassa did not return calls.
Court TV has been on a roller coaster since founder Steve
Brill, whose mandate was to do live-trial coverage on the network, was bought out and left
Last year, Court TV did a tiny 0.1 rating in primetime and
total day, according to Nielsen Media Research. It suffers the same problem as an all-news
channel like Cable News Network: Ratings are high for major news events, like the O.J.
Simpson trial, but they nose-dive otherwise.
One cable operator said Court TV's problem was that it
in effect 'dilutes a genre' -- news -- which is 'a very, very crowded genre
now.' The MSO official added, 'It's a very narrow niche with a loyal
following, but a small following. It's hard to justify the rate card.'
Court TV's rates to operators range from roughly 7
cents to 15 cents per month, per subscriber, sources said.
For their part, Bigelow and Erik Sorenson, a former CBS
News veteran who is Court TV's executive vice president of programming, did embark on
a new and somewhat controversial strategy. They wanted to move beyond doing just trial
coverage to reposition the network by adding add primetime shows and documentaries that
would broadly cover the legal system.
Sorenson's effort, however, was derailed when partners
including Liberty withheld some funding that was needed for marketing and promotion, and
when they reportedly wouldn't give the go-ahead for all of the new programming.
'Court TV obviously thrives on the huge cases that
only they can cover well,' said Janeen Bjork, director of programming at broadcast
rep firm Seltel Inc. 'But they're not a destination. It's not appointment
She added that viewers have become 'savvy and
jaded' about courtroom coverage, and that they are accustomed to the kind of high
production values that aren't possible in live trial coverage.
'Most trials are plodding, dull and take
forever,' she said. 'That makes them difficult to watch.'
Bill Carroll, vice president and director of programming at
Katz Television, added that Court TV's niche 'has sort of been co-opted' by
other cable-news channels like MSNBC and Fox News Channel, as well as by magazine shows
such as NBC's Dateline.
'They need to create programming in primetime ...
Johnnie Cochran is yesterday's news,' said Carroll, referring to Court TV's
Cochran & Co. 'If [Time Warner Inc. vice chairman] Ted [Turner] is in fact
taking over, he doesn't always strike gold, but he at least strikes bronze.'