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American Journalism Review
Living Room Law  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Features
From AJR,   March 1992

Living Room Law   

William Kennedy Smith's trial put court TV on the map. The Dahmer case kept the momentum going.

By Bruce Kauffman
Bruce Kauffman teaches journalism at Clark Atlanta University.      


The camera pans over to the face of the defendant, a 10-year veteran of the Teaneck, New Jersey, police force on trial for killing a 16-year-old boy. The cop is white, the teen-ager was black. The shooting touched off a riot.

Off-camera, the policeman's attorney tells the jury that his client had only a "split second [to] deal with a kid who had a loaded gun in his pocket."

A lawyer hands the officer, Gary Spath, a wad of tissue. He wipes his eyes and then begins to convulse as he struggles to choke back tears. Spath, who is married with two daughters, is facing up to 10 years in prison.

It's riveting TV. But unlike "L.A. Law," Spath's attorneys won't get him off within an hour. The case, which began in January, drags on for weeks.

New Jersey v. Spath is one of more than 85 trials broadcast live by the Courtroom Television Network, or Court TV, since its debut last summer. And people are watching. By the end of October, an A.C. Nielsen survey of 34 cable systems carrying the new network showed that more sets were tuned to Court TV each afternoon than most other cable services. Court TV executives say they now reach approximately 5.5 million homes, and project they will be delivering dramatic examples of U.S. jurisprudence to 30 million living rooms by 1995.

Although cases such as New Jersey v. Spath proved to be compelling viewing, the trial that catapulted the upstart network into the public consciousness was Florida v. William Kennedy Smith last December. "What the [Persian Gulf] War did for CNN," cable analyst Larry Gerbrandt of Paul Kagan Associates says, the Smith trial did for Court TV.

The Smith trial was custom-made for a tawdry television miniseries. It had the Kennedy clan, Palm Beach high society and, of

course, lurid sexual detail. Court TV was up to the task. An A.C. Nielsen phone survey indicates it beat out CNN in afternoon audience share on cable systems on which both are carried. And Court TV viewers watched with less commercial interruption and heard commentary from a team of well-briefed journalists and lawyers, including F. Lee Bailey and former CBS and New York Times legal reporter Fred Graham. The Chicago Tribune's media critic, James Warren, gave Court TV high marks. The new network's "adroit performance," he said, was "clearly superior to CNN's coverage in breadth and sophistication."

More important for journalism and the law, however, the coverage of the trial showed that a camera doesn't necessarily compromise courtroom decorum nor undermine due process. Fears that jurors, defense attorneys, prosecutors, witnesses and even judges would be diverted from the business of the court because the whole world is watching were shown to be unfounded. "It didn't prove that lawyers would play to the cameras," says David Lieberman, a staff writer at TV Guide. "It proved the opposite. They play to the jury."

Some observers predicted a drop-off in Court TV viewers after the Smith trial. But if executives at Court TV were worried about how to follow such a blockbuster, their concerns were short-lived. A few weeks later a Milwaukee court began proceedings against confessed killer Jeffrey Dahmer. Court TV, what Chicago Tribune TV critic Rick Kogan calls "the most important network to come along since CNN," is clearly on a roll.

Now it's all up to the nation's cable operators. If they're as impressed as the critics and sign on the dotted line for 10-year contracts--by no means a sure thing--Court TV will have officially arrived.

Educational Or R-Rated?

The high-profile cases of Willie Smith and Jeffrey Dahmer have resurrected the hoary debate over cameras in the courtroom. Although there has never been an outright national ban, two years after hundreds of reporters and photographers overran the 1935 trial of Lindbergh "babynapper" Bruno Hauptmann, the American Bar Association called for courts to deny access to photographers, newsreel camera crews and radio broadcasters.

In the late 1940s a new interloper was born: television. In 1952, the ABA called for courts to broaden their ban to include TV cameras. A year later, however, an Oklahoma City station aired what is considered to be the first live broadcast of a trial. Stations covered local trials in the years following, but overall, television coverage was infrequent.

It was the 1962 televised trial of Billie Sol Estes, a crony of Lyndon Johnson's found guilty of embezzlement, thatprompted the ABA a year later to reiterate its call for a ban. In 1965, the U.S. Supreme Court threw out Estes' conviction, declaring that courtroom cameras were inherently prejudicial to his right to a fair trial. By the late 1960s, 47 states had issued formal bans in keeping with ABA judicial canons.

In 1977, Florida became the first state since the Estes case to allow television coverage of its trials, and four years later the Supreme Court upheld the state's position. In Chandler v. Florida , the high court ruled against two Florida police officers, convicted of breaking and entering, who alleged that TV cameras had compromised their ability to get a fair trial. The ABA finally dropped its objections in 1990, and now only Indiana, Mississippi, Missouri, New York, South Dakota and the District of Columbia don't allow television. (New York's law permitting cameras expired last spring, but the state legislature may reinstate it.) And on July 1, 1991--the same day Court TV went on the air – the federal judicial system began permitting cameras in some jurisdictions on an experimental basis.

Some critics, however, are more worried about the effect Court TV will have on the television audience than on the outcome of the trial.

Family therapist Roy Kern, a professor at Georgia State University in Atlanta, says coverage of the Smith and Dahmer trials can harm the more vulnerable of young viewers who watch. "With a very young child, it has no redeeming value," he says. "It won't contribute one nickel's worth to their development. I hear parents talking and they're worried."

Another detractor is George Bush. In December he spoke to a San Francisco television reporter about the Smith trial.

"I'm worried about so much filth and indecent material coming in through the airwaves and through these trials into people's homes," the president said. "I think the American people have a right to be protected against some of these excesses."

Court TV Senior Vice President Merrill Brown says the network has been scrupulous in not showing the particularly gruesome exhibits from the Dahmer trial. The network uses 10-second delays to screen out what it considers "obscene" and has aired disclaimers warning viewers that testimony and exhibits might be graphic. So far, says Brown, he knows of no organized parental opposition.

Presidential prudishness and disclaimers notwithstanding, the numbers suggest the American people don't want to be protected from witnessing the likes of William Kennedy Smith or Jeffrey Dahmer. They want to watch.

Highbrow supporters of Court TV say it's enlightening: It helps demystify a process that even lawyers admit is often impenetrable. Bill Chamberlin, director of the Brechner Center for Freedom of Information at the University of Florida, says that the general public, armed with knowledge gleaned from watching Court TV, will be better prepared should they find themselves in court. "Not to use cameras in the courtroom," he says, "would be to turn our backs on the advantages technology yields..in regards to education."

Besides, it's entertaining. "The thrill of Court TV," writes Judith Shulevitz in the Village Voice, "is that it finally acknowledges the obvious about our third branch of government: It's a spectator sport..."

The Man Behind The Network

Court TV's impresario is network CEO Steven Brill, who, Shulevitz says, "is the first man on the tube who understands the fine art of making law verite fun for the whole family."

Brill has been the selling the legal profession to itself and to the public for years. After graduating from Yale Law School in 1975 he wrote a column on the profession for Esquire. Four years later he founded the American Lawyer, a monthly magazine featuring no-holds-barred coverage of the rich, powerful and heretofore insulated big-time players of the legal world. Today, Brill's American Lawyer Media also publishes nine weekly and daily legal journals across the country.

In 1988, Brill came up with idea of televising trials 24 hours a day. He eventually persuaded Time Warner, NBC, Cablevision and Liberty Media Corporation to back his project. American Lawyer Media and Time Warner together control a third of the network.

Brill eats and breathes law, and he believes that Americans share his passion. He knows the legal profession loves to read about itself--his publications' profitability tells him that. He also knows the public loves a good knockdown legal battle. The success of "L.A. Law" and "Law & Order," as well as past shows such as "Perry Mason," suggests that people have a voracious appetite for such fare. The big difference here is Court TV presents the unvarnished reality; no glitz, no fluff, no phoney grandstanding. And, as Brill says, "The real thing isn't pretty."

Don't Touch That Dial

Court TV has spawned a new legal specialty: access motions. Even in the 45 states that allow cameras in courtrooms, judges generally can bar them if they decide they would upset the proceedings.

Brill calls cameras in the courtroom a privilege, not a right. But it's not one that comes without a fight. "We're fighting battles for cameras in the courtroom every day," says Merrill Brown. By Court TV's count, it's winning the war: Brill says that the network has gained access about 90 percent of the time.

To fill 24 hours of courtroom drama, Court TV looks for substantive one- to two-week trials featuring provocative witnesses and articulate lawyers. About 50 cases, culled from a database of more than 300, will get airtime in a given four-month period.

Will Court TV pander to the audiences that normally watch such shows as "A Current Affair," "Hard Copy," and "Now It Can Be Told"? Some critics fear the worst.

"I'm concerned that they might concentrate on the tabloid-type stories," says Dusty Saunders, broadcast critic for the Rocky Mountain News in Denver. "Of course, if they change to provide in-depth legal education for Americans, they'll be out of business."

In fact, about one-third of the more than 85 trials or stories about trials covered through mid-February concerned murder--what Brill calls the "ultimate crime."

In one case, a Vermont man came forward to help convict his father of murdering an alleged lover 14 years ago. In another, a former Oklahoma police officer was found not guilty of killing two young women more than 20 years ago. And then there's the Massachusetts murder trial in which a forensic chemist held up the victim's nightgown to point out the places where a knife slashed through. Court TV cut to a lawyer-commentator who said, "Great stuff. I think this guy's terrific. Soaked with blood. Whoever killed this woman really enjoyed it and was really angry." But was it the defendant? No, said the commentator: "This guy doesn't have what it takes in his gut to chase this woman around and slice her up. Particularly to slit her throat. That's really rude."

Not all Court TV cases are sensational. The network carried the trial of Denver TV reporter Wendy Bergen, who staged her own news story, a pit bull fight in Colorado. It broadcast the trial of nine Salvadoran military men charged with killing six Jesuit priests and two women in 1989. It also covered the case in which Cincinnati shut down a Robert Mapplethorpe photo exhibit. And Court TV broadcast a case concerning a Guam anti-abortion statute that pro-choice advocates fear could finally render Roe v. Wade meaningless. In the next few months the network plans to air Charles Manson's parole hearing, opening testimony in the Rodney King police brutality case and the trials of the leaders of the failed Soviet coup.

In February Court TV was in Milwaukee. The network, at first reluctant to televise the Jeffrey Dahmer trial and its inevitable gruesome details, opted to cover it when Dahmer pleaded guilty but insane. The trial will determine whether Dahmer should be held criminally responsible for his actions, and Court TV producers believe the case will enlighten the public on the difference between legal and psychiatric definitions of insanity.

Beyond carrying trial proceedings, Brill says he plans to create "theme" programs based on the wealth of material two live trials a day yield. For example, he talks of developing a show on religious freedom built around a Palm Beach custody battle in which the father of a boy claimed the mother was unfit to raise him because she's a Jehovah's Witness. Or a show on freedom of expression using the Mapplethorpe case in Cincinnati.

The Future's So Bright?

Although some TV industry pundits view Court TV's performance during the William Kennedy Smith trial as a watershed for the nascent network, Brill is less sanguine. "The trial is not particularly significant for us," he says.

"It'll be a slow, steady process. No [cable operator] is going to make what could be a 10-year commitment based on a few days [of trial coverage]."

In Atlanta, for example, Court TV's sales people failed to convince cable franchisee GCTV to pick it up. GCTV Marketing Director Anne Landers says there's been more demand for a science fiction channel that's not even available yet. Besides, she adds, GCTV, like many cable systems, lacks the capacity now for new channels. And she figures that installation of a compression system, which could put four different channels or more at each number on the clicker, could cost as much as $15 million.

Thomas Kerver, the business editor of Cablevision magazine, says the argument that there are only a few spaces for new channels left on the cable is bogus. More telling, he says, is the constant pressure on cable operators to keep rates down--intensified by the January 31 U.S. Senate vote to regulate cable fees--that forces them to look for bargains. Cable operators can air "infomercials" and make as much as 50 percent of every item sold, he points out, while Court TV wants them to sign five- or 10-year contracts at an 13-cents-per-subscriber monthly fee, which is high.

Despite Court TV's cost to cable franchisees, Cable World Publisher Thomas Southwick says it's enticing enough to attract widespread interest. "It's almost like having a channel devoted to the hottest topic in town," he says. "And if you watch it for five minutes, you'll likely watch it for three hours. It's addictive."

Southwick predicts Court TV will turn the financial corner if it generates 10 million subscribers by the end of this year and another 20 million by 1995, which is Brill's goal.

Other experts maintain Court TV has already established itself, albeit in less than one out of 10 households. They agree that the William Kennedy Smith trial validated the courtroom channel concept and suggest that any would-be competitors would face withering odds in taking on Court TV.

"They're very quickly coming to be seen as the place to turn for law-related news," says TV Guide's David Lieberman. "It's niche programming, but they pretty much have the field to themselves."

Cable analyst Larry Gerbrandt says Court TV heralds the end of a trend: Few if any networks will emerge after it with such mass appeal. "It will be one of the last broadly carried networks in the country."

But Brill's formula for success doesn't concern numbers, money and selling. He says he's learned that if he produces an editorial product he believes in, one that he knows inside and out, it can't help but sell. It may turn out to be, as he says, a "slow, steady process," but if Brill's track record is any indication, Court TV is bound to become a fixture in American living rooms.

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