If you have cable, you probably have TruTV, which specializes in comedy gags (Impractical Jokers) and clip shows (Top 20 Most Shocking). But truTV is a relatively new channel, having risen from the ashes of a network dedicated to picking over every detail of the highest-profile trials of the 1990s: Court TV.
Where did Court TV go? First, let’s take a look at where it began.
Court TV was launched in 1991 by lawyer and journalist Steven Brill, who told the New York Observer this March that the network’s success was due to a very simple reason: “People are always interested [in true crime]. It’s why Court TV worked. It’s natural drama, there’s a beginning, middle and end, and people want to know what happens.” Court TV was originally going to be called the distinctly less-catchy American Trial Network, according to a 1990 New York Times article that quotes Brill revealing that his new network was planning to broadcast the trial of three of the defendants in the high-profile Central Park jogger rape case.
Continuous live coverage of a trial in its entirety, with running commentary by legal experts, was a novel idea at the time, as the Times article notes:
New York State has been experimenting with television cameras in the courtroom since 1987, and judges may decide on a case-by-case basis whether to allow them in their courtrooms. Justice Thomas B. Galligan, the judge in the jogger case, has said he will allow televised coverage of the trial.
... “This would not be a sneak preview of the network,’’ Mr. Brill said, ‘’but an opportunity to present an interesting trial in the public service.
‘’Two years ago, I had this idea to use the advent of cameras in the courtroom, which is happening all over the country, to do a channel, the core of which is live cases. The real work of the judiciary is in courts. It’s supposed to be public.’’
Local television coverage of the jogger trial would most likely be with one camera, shared by the various stations. Mr. Brill said the network has petitioned Justice Galligan for the right to use its own camera, adding that he had offered assurances that the camera would not intrude upon the proceeding.
The new network’s commitment to preserving the anonymity of its subjects (including the woman who accused William Kennedy Smith of rape, whose identity was so carefully blotted out that many began referring to her as “blue dot”) was admirable, if somewhat ironic, considering its “gavel-to-gavel” coverage brought unprecedented interest and scrutiny to the cases it chose to feature. Of course, that’s why it became such a hit.
“Our goal is to substitute real law for L.A. Law,” Brill told the Pittsburgh Press the week of Court TV’s 1991 debut, pointing to the Kennedy Smith trial as the fledgling network’s first big focus.
The article goes on to note:
Ninety percent of the country is available for reportage by Court TV, because 45 states permit cameras in their courtrooms ... Cameras have been barred from federal courts since the Lindbergh kidnapping trial of Bruno Richard Hauptmann in 1935 was turned by photographers into a media circus. Conveniently for Court TV, this week marked the beginning of a three-year experiment in which cameras will be permitted to cover civil cases — but not criminal cases — in six federal court jurisdictions.
Actually, Court TV already has become the first media organization to use a TV camera in a federal court. A New York judge, William Conner, jumped the gun when he allowed a Court TV crew into his court June 10 to tape proceedings in a copyright dispute involving fees for marketing images of the late actor James Dean.
Court TV was greeted with curiosity when it hit the airwaves. A 1991 Entertainment Weekly article described the channel as “part C-Span, part Monday Night Football.” And there were the inevitable detractors, per EW:
The Washington Post’s Tom Shales wrote that ”Court TV may have as much to learn as it does to teach” and called [host Fred Graham] a ”hickory-cured ham,” complaining about his ”incessant yammering.”
There’s been criticism from inside the courthouse, too. Predictably, many defense attorneys and some prosecutors are uncomfortable with televised trials. ”It’s a bad idea,” says Roy Black, William Kennedy Smith’s lawyer. ”Cameras in the courtroom add pressure to the proceedings and skew the court’s ability to judge fairly. Members of the jury are supposed to be concentrating on the evidence, not worrying about how they look on TV. If I had my way, I’d prefer that cameras not be there.”
Brill’s response, though, insisted that Black was wrong about the influence of cameras in the courtroom.
“Study after study proves that videotaping trials has no adverse effect on the outcome. All it does is educate the public about how the court system works.” He adds, ”If ever there was a trial that a defense attorney should want on TV, it’s the Kennedy case. After all, we’ll be showing the whole thing — not just sensational little snippets on the evening news.”
No matter who’s right, Brill was ultimately the winner, because Court TV was a hit. Just two years later, Entertainment Weekly ran another article on the network. This time, it was a first-person essay by Jess Cagle entitled “Confessions of a Court TV Addict;” its focus was the the notorious case that cemented watching Court TV as a nationwide past time: Erik and Lyle Menendez, the Beverly Hills brothers accused of murdering their parents.
In Cagle’s appreciation, he wrote:
Like most Court TV addicts, I now find myself not only obsessed with the impending verdict but caught up in the theater of the trial itself. Just look at defense attorney Leslie Abramson’s hair! She’s Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction on a humid day. As for prosecutor Pamela Bozanich, she should definitely stop wearing those silly-girl bows. And will Judge Stanley Weisberg ever smile? Sustaining and overruling in that deadly monotone, peering over those little round glasses, he reminds me of comedian Steven Wright without the punch lines.
Starting as a minor cable channel in July 1991, Court TV (which, like this magazine, is owned by Time Warner) has slowly built a cult following, attracting its current estimated audience of 1.3 million viewers with a gamut of trials ranging from a case concerning a Pennsylvania auto-lemon law to more dramatic fare starring Marlon Brando, Jeffrey Dahmer, and Rodney King. Viewer calls have risen from 150 to 1,000 per week during the trials, and nothing has pulled a bigger, steadier following than the Menendez case. The Los Angeles district attorney’s office gets nearly 50 calls a day from Court TV watchers with advice on how best to prosecute the Menendez boys.
The first Menendez brothers trial, in 1993, ended with a deadlocked jury. Their subsequent retrial did not allow cameras in the courtroom; due to both that fact and because viewers were likely a bit Menendez-ed out, the do-over received far less media attention. (As it happens, they were both eventually convicted of first-degree murder and received life sentences.)
Probably the most important Court TV case came a year later, when OJ Simpson went on trial for murder. But by then, televising trials was big business. The Simpson case wasn’t just huge for Court TV; it was breathlessly covered by every major network. In a 2014 opinion piece looking back at the case with a 20-year perspective, Variety TV critic Brian Lowry discussed “TV’s corrosive influence” on the legal system:
In cable circles, CNN, HLN, and Court TV pretty much dominated the Simpson coverage, with the case having preceded the 1996 birth of Fox News Channel and MSNBC. Even those networks, however, have ceded immediacy to a Web culture that frequently reports first, and sorts out details later.
As is noted in National Geographic Channel’s upcoming documentary “The ’90s: The Last Great Decade?,” those years hastened the breakdown of barriers between news/reality and entertainment. “By the end of the 1990s, there’s no distinction between … tabloid culture and news,” notes writer David Sirota.
Flip to HLN during any high-profile trial, and witness the comical sight of multiple lawyers shouting at each other — their heads crammed into little side-by-side squares — to see how far the crime-equals-showbiz nexus has descended down this particular rabbit hole.
Founder Brill left Court TV in 1997, but it remained on the air as a Time Warner property until 2007. The channel expanded its scope beyond just continuous trial coverage (which the internet, along with tabloid-y shows like HLN’s Nancy Grace, kind of supplanted anyway), and added prime-time shows like Forensic Files — a show so popular it’s still a part of the programming on truTV, which replaced Court TV on January 1, 2008.
The press release announcing truTV’s rebranding was full of buzzwords explaining the shift to reality-TV fare:
This new name reflects the network’s popular line-up of series that offer first-person access to exciting, real-life stories, according to the announcement today by Steve Koonin, president of Turner Entertainment Networks, and Marc Juris, the network’s general manager. Through a dynamic original programming line-up that has been providing the network with strong and consistent audience growth, truTV will target a highly coveted psychographic known as “Real Engagers.”
Developing the truTV network name is the latest step in a nearly year-long process of rebranding the network. The process began with extensive research into who the network’s prime-time and late-night viewers are and what kind of programming they desire. The compiled data showed that the line-up attracts a dual-gender audience that loves programming with real people in exciting real-life situations and a strong interest in compelling stories and characters.
“Early in the rebranding process, we realized that the current network name doesn’t reflect the direction of our programming or our growing target audience of Real Engagers,” said Juris. “In truTV, we now have the ideal name that fits both the programming and the target audience. The network will be top of mind for Real Engagers seeking real-life action programming, real-life emotion and access to places they can’t normally go.”
In 2013, truTV cancelled trial-coverage show “In Session.” It was, Access Atlanta noted, the last holdout of programming from the channel’s Court TV roots:
Since Turner Broadcasting changed the network’s name to TruTV in early 2008, it has gradually been cutting back on court coverage, adding reality shows about pawn shops, shocking videos and practical jokers.
TruTV dropped live six-hour daily court coverage in March, slimming down “In Session” to two hours ... at the time, it let go some producers. So this current move is hardly a shock.
The network has ceded crime/court stories to sister station HLN, which took over “In Session” production in 2009. What becomes of the remaining “In Session” staff is unclear.
TruTV’s current lineup, which includes shows such as “Hardcore Pawn” and “Impractical Jokers” draws younger male viewers. Court TV skewed older and more female.
Alas, fellow courtroom TV junkies. At least we still have Judge Judy.
Top image: future Court TV objects of fascination Lyle, left, and Erik Menendez in a Santa Monica, Calif. courtroom on Aug. 6, 1990. AP photo by Nick Ut.