Court-ordered program reform

New emphasis on entertainment lifts the crime, justice net out of cable's middle ranks

The verdict is in: Court TV was smart to step outside the courtroom. Both viewers and advertisers have taken new note of the cable net.

"For two years," said Court TV Chairman and CEO Henry Schleiff, "we've been shouting that crime and justice could be information and entertainment."

Although landmark trials like the O.J. Simpson case will always give Court TV a ratings spike, assault and battery doesn't always draw a crowd. In January 1999, Schleiff engineered a relaunch of Court TV, splitting the channel into distinct dayparts. Daytime stayed true to the channel's roots: trial coverage and legal analysis. But entertainment, including off-nets Homicide
and last year's pick-up NYPD Blue
and originals like Forensic Files, drive nighttime.

"During the day, they compete with news networks like CNN and Fox News and, at night, against USA and TNT," noted Horizon Media Senior Vice President of Research Brad Adgate.

The combination has lifted Court TV out of cable's middling crowd. Distribution exploded from 29 million in January 1999 to the current count of 71 million. In first quarter 1999, Court logged a meager 75,000 households in prime. In first quarter 2002, the figure jumped to 555,000.

Court now commands a stronger spot on some media plans. "You don't say, 'I have a few bucks to spare, I'll give it to Court' anymore," says Howard Nass, principal of HN Media. "They've become a player."

Ownership changes fueled the net's evolution. When legal-media baron Steven Brill founded Courtroom Television Network in 1991, he set out to bring live legal drama to American homes. But the concept found limited audience appeal, and he sold his stake to Time Warner Entertainment, Liberty Media and NBC in 1997 (NBC was bought out soon after). Schleiff, a lawyer and veteran TV exec, joined the network in 1998 to craft the changes.

Originals and off-nets drive prime time ratings (a network-high 0.8 in first quarter). Original Forensic Files
is the highest-rated show, averaging 0.9 in the first quarter. NYPD Blue, shared with TNT at a cost of about $700,000 per episode, pulls in 0.7.

Court shelled out $120 million to $140 million on programming over the past two years; Schleiff says he'll spend even more over the next two. "The lion's share is for documentaries, series and some movies, but we'll keep a little in our pocket for a worthy off-net series."

Some suitable off-nets, like CBS hit CSI
and NBC's Law & Order
trio, are out of Court's financial reach. The net bid for cable rights to CSI
last year, losing to TNN, which paid $1.5 million per episode.

Court is branching out into investigation, problem-solving and mystery genres with upcoming series like Dominick Dunne's Power, Privilege and Justice
and I-Detectives.

Schleiff's bullish on original movies: "A compelling, smart movie is still something that can draw viewers in." Court's first original movie, Guilt by Association, notched a 1.5 rating at its January debut. Plans call for two to four original movies per year.

Schleiff doesn't believe there's sufficient appetite for pricey original dramas. "Some networks create a supply when a demand just isn't there," he said. "The batting average isn't great." Safer, tested network fare like Profiler
and NYPD Blue
works just fine.

Partnerships with broadcast give Court added traction. NBC's Dateline
and CBS's 60 Minutes
often team up with Court. ABC News' Ted Koppel is regularly on the net.

For now, the Nielsen elite ranks, where a 1.8 or 2.0 is all in a month's work, remain out of reach. "They're not in the promised land just yet," said Lifetime head of research Tim Brooks, "but they are moving in the right direction."