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Sometimes Crime Pays

Court TV Schleiff succeeds by shifting emphasis 4/07/2006 08:00:00 PM Eastern

Henry Schleiff, Chairman/CEO, Court TV

Vanguard Award for Programming

Usually, reference to a “split personality” in a Court TV story would be in relation to some heartland murder trial. But Court TV Chairman/CEO Henry S. Schleiff has built one network with two very different programming personalities.

By day, Court TV News is a not-so-mild-mannered crime fighter offering live trial coverage and analysis. At night, becoming “Seriously Entertaining,” it offers a range of more-dramatic forensic and procedural programs, from San Diego Beach Patrol and L.A. Forensics to Dominick Dunne’s Power, Privilege and Justice and even, yes, Psychic Detectives. Those crime shows fit with Court’s concept and audience.

For his success, Schleiff has been named this year’s recipient of the NCTA’s 2006 Vanguard Award for programmers.

The network, 50-50 owned by Time Warner and Liberty Media, is now seen in 85 million homes. That’s a far cry from the 30 million it reached when Schleiff, 57, a lawyer and veteran executive with Studios USA and Viacom, took over a more subdued Court TV after the departure of founder Steve Brill in 1998.

Court TV had its best-ever first quarter this year, a best-ever March prime time 18-49 audience (390,000 viewers), and its best-ever quarter in 18-49 male viewers and also all men. And new metrics for measuring viewer engagement indicate that Court TV fans don’t click away during commercials.

The network’s “Real, Exciting, Dramatic” umbrella hype for such programs as Texas SWAT and Hot Pursuit, introduced in January, has perked its younger demos. The new prime time slate just announced offers Court TV’s first scripted dramatic production, ’Til Death Do Us Part, which tells of murders by spouses. Also included is America’s Crime Writers: Murder They Wrote, featuring top crime scribes.

Schleiff won’t put an exact dollar figure on the productions, but he says, “it represents our largest-ever financial commitment, several hundred million dollars in programming and directly related promotion.”

STRONG WEB PRESENCE

Another major success for Court TV right now is TheSmokingGun.com, the muckraking Web site acquired during Schleiff’s tenure. Schleiff says the Smoking Gun site contributes an increasing piece of the network’s revenue and attracts a desirable hip, young audience.

But its greatest value to Court TV may be as part of a package. “Our advertising partners have awakened to the multiple platforms available to them,” says Schleiff, who is also launching new Court TV Web initiatives. “Advertisers are increasingly looking for combinations that work.”

All that success in other venues doesn’t mean he has stopped tweaking the network’s daytime programming.

“We’re going to announce at NCTA that we’re fine-tuning our schedule in daytime,” Schleiff says. “Meaning that we’re going to have some different anchors in some different time periods, some different teams, and a whole new graphics package, a new look taking advantage not only of our second [remote location] truck but of our whole new Washington bureau.”

Court TV (and CNN Headline News) anchor Nancy Grace has made some headlines in recent months for her support of crime victims, taking heat from critics for a style that leaves little if any room for the presumption of innocence. Schleiff is having none of it.

“People criticize her for being passionate. And I, on the other hand, am quite willing to compliment her for her passion,” he says, in the same forceful manner she employs.

Schleiff is as emphatic about the issue of cameras in the courtroom, particularly federal district jurisdictions and the U.S. Supreme Court. He thinks it has a good chance of happening soon.

“Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Alito publicly indicated [at their confirmation hearings] that they’re open-minded on the issue of cameras in the Supreme Court,” he says. “Justice Roberts is going so far as to say he’s interested in hearing the views of his brethren and would take a fresh look at it. We’re cautiously optimistic.

“I don’t know if it is going to happen now,” he adds, “but I think, over time, it is increasingly likely, especially as we get justices who are a little bit more comfortable with modern-day technology and the benefits educationally.”

There’s a lot to be gained by “giving greater confidence to those who look at the system and see the kind of issues argued before the U.S. Supreme Court, with virtually everything from our civil rights to a woman’s right to choose to, I guess you could say, the choice of a president,” Schleiff says.

And, he notes with a chuckle, Anna Nicole Smith’s recent appearance before the Supremes wouldn’t have made bad TV, either.

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