Trial and Error?
A roaming band of journalists crisscrosses the country to provide television coverage of every minor development in celebrity court cases. Is this a wise use
of resources and airtime?
By Kevin Brass
At 4 a.m. in the January freeze of the Rocky Mountains, producers and hard-luck interns started scraping the snow off the two-story platforms for the camera crews. Soon reporters bundled in parkas scrambled from the warmth of rented mobile homes to shiver in the cold, waiting to report that in just a few hours Kobe Bryant would stroll into the Eagle County Courthouse for another pretrial hearing.
Kevin Brass is a freelance journalist based in Austin, Texas. He is coproducing a documentary on media coverage of the Bryant trial with Malone Media Group.
Except this morning there was a problem. An NBC intern staking out the Eagle County airport reported Bryant's arrival in a private plane at 8:30 a.m., right on schedule. But 10 minutes later, no Kobe. For the first time in six months, without warning, he entered the courthouse through a back door, depriving the gathered photographers of the so-called "money shot."
On this day Bryant's lawyers and prosecutors would debate the admissibility of medical evidence in his sexual assault case behind closed doors. And now the crews who traveled to Eagle from all over the country--many straight from Michael Jackson's appearance in a Santa Barbara County court the week before--wouldn't even get the obligatory footage of Bryant stepping out of an SUV and strolling into the courthouse.
"My bosses knew that the interesting part of today's hearing would probably be closed," says KTLA reporter Eric Spillman. "But it didn't matter because Kobe is coming."
Until recently, Spillman, a lanky veteran of Los Angeles TV, specialized in covering local stories for the KTLA morning news. But these days he spends a good chunk of his time standing in front of courthouses reporting on the movements of high-profile defendants.
"It seems like all we do these days is cover celebrity trials," Spillman says. His calendar includes trips to cover Jackson and Scott Peterson, facing trial in Northern California for the murder of his pregnant wife, as well as regular trips to Colorado for the Bryant case.
Spillman is part of a wandering troupe of reporters, photographers, producers and pundits who move from celebrated case to celebrated case, setting up small media cities wherever they go. One day reporters will stand on a platform in California talking about an evidentiary hearing in the Peterson case, and the next they'll be planted in the snow in Eagle, discussing rape shield laws.
"They're like a band of gypsies," says Karen Salaz, media liaison for the Colorado state courts. "They go from one event to the next. They all know each other."
These gypsies are working harder than ever. Bryant, Jackson and Peterson are simply the A-list of current judicial events. Throw in Martha Stewart, music producer Phil Spector, ex-NBA player Jayson Williams and assorted financial scandals, and 2004 is shaping up to be the Year of the Celebrity Trial. Columnists and pundits talk of a "perfect storm" of media events, when the trials of Bryant, Jackson and actor Robert Blake converge later this year with the presidential election and the Olympics. That's daunting news for media executives. At a time when many newsrooms are looking to save every dime, trial coverage has developed into one of the largest drains of some newsroom budgets. Local jurisdictions in Northern California may charge media organizations more than $20,000 to cover the Scott Peterson trial. Parking alone was $250 a day for crews covering Michael Jackson's early appearances in court.
But is the coverage worth the cost? Trial coverage doesn't necessarily translate into higher ratings. And if news crews flock to Eagle, Colorado, those crews won't be available to chase other news.
The Bryant case has proven to be an irresistible blend of celebrity and scandal. Dozens of broadcasters are spending thousands of dollars a day to travel to Eagle, a two-hour drive west from Denver, to report on each new legal development in Bryant's sexual assault case.
"When a case has all these ingredients, particularly in L.A, you have to cover it," says KTLA News Director Jeff Wald, Spillman's boss.
Standing in the single-digit temperatures of Eagle, still irritated that Bryant slipped in the back door, Spillman wasn't so sure. "A lot of this doesn't lend itself to compelling TV," Spillman says. "But we come no matter what because it's Kobe Bryant. And I think we're doing that at the detriment of covering news happening in our community and the issues that really matter to people."
The charge of sexual assault against Bryant hit the sweet spot of celebrity trials--attracting attention from news, entertainment and sports shows, plus the international media. An efficient, well-organized media army descended on Eagle, veterans of O.J., JonBenet Ramsey, the Washington sniper trials and a host of other national spectacles.
Crews started arriving in Eagle, population 3,032, on July 7, the day after the incident involving Bryant became public. CBS and NBC rented office space near the county courthouse, setting up mobile command posts complete with space for editing gear, phone lines and toilets.
On August 6 more than 400 reporters, photographers and producers flooded into Eagle to cover Bryant's first appearance in court, when he said a grand total of two words: "No, sir." Two dozen platforms to support mini-TV sets, complete, in some cases, with imported foliage, were constructed across the street from the courthouse; CNN, Court TV and NBC built semi-permanent wood structures.
The hearing was every bit the proverbial circus, with reporters scurrying around the courthouse lawn to interview teenagers in Lakers jerseys and a guy holding a sign proclaiming, "If the condom doesn't fit you must acquit." After the hearing, the media started settling in for the long haul. An emissary representing the press was dispatched to talk to courthouse officials about establishing some order to the media hordes.
"These people are pros," says Becky Gadell, who served as media contact for Eagle County before moving to North Carolina last fall. "They've learned what to do and not to do. We literally sat down on the grass and started mapping out what is necessary."
The news media and the county negotiated agreements on a wide variety of topics, including the county's willingness to trim trees and move signs outside the building to aid sightlines for live shots. As a result of a judge's directive, a roped-off "bullpen" was built for credentialed photographers outside the front door, and reporters and photographers were ordered to stay off the sidewalk. "We had a team approach," says Gadell. "The culture was one of working together."
The county agreed to serve as broker for some expenses, paying $5,000 a month so news crews could park their trucks in a dirt lot across the street from the courthouse. The county, in turn, initially collected parking fees of $555 a month per space from each news organization. Fox News, CNN and Court TV each took three spaces.
In September, the Colorado Broadcasters Association and Colorado Press Association convened one of the first meetings of media representatives to address a sticky issue--who would get to sit in the courtroom? The meeting was contentious, with representatives of ESPN and the syndicated "Celebrity Justice" demanding seats next to the traditional news organizations.
"I don't know what opinions you have about syndicated entertainment television, but it is something more and more Americans are turning to for this kind of case," argued "Celebrity Justice" producer Gillian Sheldon. She didn't get a seat. Neither did ESPN (although both were able to use overflow seats for the early hearings).
To deal with the logistics and expenses of covering a case that could easily last more than a year, news organizations put aside their competition and in January formed a consortium. To navigate the inevitable problems, the group hired Wayne Wicks, a former CBS News producer and engineer, who performed a similar role during the Oklahoma City bombing trials. The consortium paid Wicks $750 a week to handle an array of tasks at the emerging Camp Kobe.
The news outlets brought in a trailer to serve as a listening room, with air conditioning and heat, so members without courtroom seats could follow testimony. They also negotiated to bring in power and phone lines to the site, rented portable toilets and arranged for a trailer to serve as a media workroom during the trial.
Consortium members were assessed $500 to cover expenses from January through May. Parking in the dirt lot was an additional $100 per day, per satellite truck. By mid-February, 47 news organizations planning to regularly cover the case had joined. They had little choice--if they didn't pay, they wouldn't be able to use pool video, the listening room or other consortium resources.
Although "raising money from stations in a tight economy" was a challenge, Wicks says, "I've never seen this level of cooperation."
Court cases are marathons. Longer than most political campaigns, more enduring than many Hollywood romances, they can be an endless series of hearings and special motions. The Peterson case may stretch for two years. In Eagle terms, the Bryant case has already run through the heat of summer, the start of elk hunting season and the annual migration of ski bums to the area.
Attendance at the Bryant proceedings has ebbed and flowed. Through the winter, the Bryant media gaggle dwindled to a smaller, dedicated group of news organizations that rarely missed a hearing. CNN, Fox and NBC maintain bureaus in Denver, which has helped them staff Bryant developments. But they still needed to import their own infrastructure to Eagle. NBC alone brought in more than 2,000 feet of cable. For the preliminary hearing, NBC, which supplies MSNBC and CNBC as well as the traditional broadcast network, employed 24 people. Through peak periods of coverage, it is spending more than $20,000 per day to report on Bryant's legal travails, according to one source.
The Bryant case had the biggest financial impact on TV stations in Los Angeles, where the local star's every move is newsworthy. Last year stations lost hundreds of thousands of dollars in revenue when they devoted airtime to covering the wildfires that ravaged Southern California. Now they are looking at staffing Bryant, Peterson and Jackson--all of which are out of town--as well as Blake and Spector.
In January, after six months of covering every Bryant hearing, with both the Jackson and Peterson cases looming, Nancy Bauer Gonzales, news director and vice president of Los Angeles' KCBS-TV and KCAL-TV, decided not to send a crew to Eagle for two Bryant hearings--even though several of her competitors dispatched reporters. "You have to decide whether to spend your money traveling or to spend it in your backyard," Gonzales says. "I'd rather spend the money in my backyard."
Costs for staffing a court hearing can add up quickly. For Bryant, the out-of-town stations rely heavily on freelance crews. A photographer and a sound technician usually charge about $1,400 a day, not including overtime. A satellite truck rents for $2,000 a day. Renting satellite time to beam back live shots and video can cost anywhere from $1 to $10 a minute. Add in hotel rooms, airfare, gas and meals, and covering a one-day hearing is an expensive proposition.
In many cases, Denver and Los Angeles sister stations are working together to split costs. For example, KDVR, the Fox affiliate in Denver, provides live reports for L.A. Fox affiliate KTTV on the Bryant case, and KTTV in turn provides coverage of the Michael Jackson case for KDVR.
Denver stations have found themselves at the center of an international media event by coincidence. Bryant has no local connections; he was in Colorado for knee surgery. It qualifies as a local story, but the stations still have to put up crews in hotels and handle the same type of expenses as the out-of-towners. For a local station with limited resources, staffing the Bryant case has a direct impact on day-to-day coverage.
"It means I have one less photographer to chase news in Denver," says Marc Williams, director of news planning for KMGH, which last year won a prestigious Alfred I. duPont-
Columbia University Award for its lengthy investigation of sexual abuse at the United States Air Force Academy.
But KMGH, like all its competitors, is committed to covering every nuance of the Bryant case. The station assigned three reporters and four photographers plus a support crew to Bryant's August appearance and a team of seven people for the preliminary hearing. KMGH also assigned an investigative reporter to cover the case. "We've identified this as a story of high interest that we want to win," Williams says. "If we were the station to go on record and say we're not going to cover it, that would be a mistake. Our competition is always going to be there."
Former ABC News executive Av Westin calls it "the fear factor." No news executive wants to face his boss the next morning if his competitors covered a sensational development in a celebrity case and he didn't. To Westin, the "must-cover" attitude toward celebrity trials is another sign of the skewing of news judgment in broadcast journalism. Devoting all this time and money to such court cases, to Westin, is simply not worth it. "Clearly you have a limited amount of airtime and a limited amount of resources," Westin says. "If you are misappropriating both just to be present on a story when there is nothing new, it is a misuse of your resources and talent."
But Bill Dallman, vice president and news director of KDVR in Denver, prefers to call it the "experience factor." Before every hearing the KDVR news managers discuss whether it's necessary to send a reporter to Eagle, he says, and, so far, every time the answer has been "yes."
"We don't want to be out of range if a significant development occurs," Dallman says. "I've done this enough to know that if you're not there and something happens, there is a 100 percent chance you will miss it. And we're not willing to do that on a story of so much prominence."
Network executives say they try to find a balance between giving the public a taste of the titillating celebrity story and providing some real news value.
"We try to stay on what we think the case is about and not react to every single event that occurs," says Eric Avram, senior producer of ABC's law and justice unit. The unit is another byproduct of the growing focus on court cases--a six-member team of producers devoted exclusively to reporting on legal issues. Nevertheless, ABC, which doesn't have to supply a cable outlet, is one of the few major players to occasionally skip sending a reporter to some of the Bryant hearings.
There are many serious issues in the Bryant case, "but that doesn't mean everything surrounding the case is legitimate news," Avram says. "What we try to do is be very mindful that these [trials] are not sporting events."
CNN/U.S. Executive Vice President and General Manager Princell Hair says his network won't cover the high-profile trials gavel-to-gavel. He will only commit to live coverage of "opening statements, key testimony, closing arguments and verdicts," if cameras are even allowed in the courtrooms. "While there may be great interest, I do not think these trials are the only things we should air," Hair says.
There is evidence to suggest that the audience's interest in such trials is less than overwhelming. In a Pew Research Center for the People & the Press study last August, only 17 percent of the respondents were interested in closely following the Bryant case, and only 30 percent said they would follow it "fairly closely." Fifty-two percent said they were either only slightly interested or not interested at all.
Lawyers representing the media have asked the judge in the Bryant case to allow cameras in the courtroom, arguing that the public has a right to view the trial. But when Public Opinion Strategies, a Denver research firm working for the Rocky Mountain News, polled Coloradans, 70 percent of the respondents said cameras should be kept out. "There is no stomach for 'O.J. II,' " Lori Weigel, a partner at Public Opinion Strategies, told the paper.
Even by television news' own standards, it's difficult to put a number on the payoff, the return on investment for trial coverage. Ratings rarely show a dramatic change on days of big trial news. For example, on August 6, the day Bryant first appeared in court, CNN's 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. programming attracted 558,000 viewers (a 0.4 rating), according to Nielsen Media Research. A week earlier the same programming on the same night, sans Bryant, drew 496,000 viewers, the difference of less than a 0.1 rating point. Fox News Channel for the same period drew an audience of 1.1 million the night Kobe said "No, sir," but it attracted 1.3 million the same time a week earlier.
At the local level, station executives acknowledge, there is rarely a big viewership spike for trial coverage. There are too many variables affecting a newscast's ratings, from the quality of the lead-in program to the day's top stories, to determine the effect of a live shot from the Bryant trial, they say.
But trials do have mass appeal, and they are staged in a controllable environment day after day. Send a crew and it's a guaranteed big story that can be promoted before each newscast.
"In today's thinly staffed newsrooms, you know you're going to come out of [a trial event] with a story," says Al Tompkins, a former TV news executive now at the Poynter Institute. "It's a low-hanging-fruit kind of story."
Best of all, the celebrity court cases help feed the voracious appetite for programming, especially on the 24-hour cable news channels. Fox News Channel, MSNBC and CNN all spotlight nightly court shows. The sheer volume of court programming has spawned a new breed of celebrity legal analyst, many of whom command top salaries, adding another line item to newsroom budgets. Some analysts charge as much as $2,000 per appearance. With so many shows to fill, broadcasters are racing to sign exclusive deals with TV-friendly legal experts from O.J. prosecutor Marcia Clark on "Entertainment Tonight" to New Yorker writer Jeffrey Toobin, who now works as an analyst for CNN after seven years at ABC News.
In fact, media observers say that the constant legal discussion, even in the context of a celebrity case, does have educational value. "We're a country that understands our legal system through the snapshots of these trials quilted together," Tompkins says. "People understand the system much better than when the only court that they saw was 'Perry Mason.' "
Perry Mason would have been bored at the January hearing in Eagle. No decisions were made on the evidence; the hearing was continued to the following week. Many of the stations led their reports with news that Bryant entered the courthouse through a back door.
Around Camp Kobe, amid the towering news platforms, staffers from Tribune stations, including KTLA's Spillman, did their morning live reports from a piece of fake grass tossed on the ice across the street from the courthouse.
A crew from Denver's KCNC huddled around a portable heater in a tent the station bought for the Bryant case. Other teams camped out in a row of rented mobile homes.
This is, after all, a mobile operation, a band of gypsies. The trial crews have to be ready to pack up and move on short notice. There's always the possibility that the judge will transfer the Bryant case to a different venue. Or maybe another celebrity will be charged with a crime, sending the press off to stake out another courthouse.
The Bryant trial is not expected to start until July, at the earliest. No one is quite sure what to expect. Some predict the trial will last three weeks, but that could easily turn into three months. That would mean day after day of expense sheets from the Eagle Best Western.
KDVR News Director Dallman is preparing for the worst. The trial "will be a significant expense," he says. "We will have to forego other travel to cover this." Although he proudly claims that KDVR "broke the story" of Bryant's arrest, he says he wants to avoid an "arms race" with the other stations. "As a news director, the thing that's difficult is to not get caught up in the frenzy of coverage."
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