Court TV is enjoying its own November sweeps this year. Viewers are fixated on high profile legal stories, from Michael Jackson's legal woes—a story Court TV broke—to celebrity defendants like Kobe Bryant, Martha Stewart, Robert Blake and Phil Spector, The cable net's daytime news coverage is in high gear.
When viewers get hooked on legal stories, "Court TV becomes the de facto fourth cable news network," says Dr. Robert Thompson, head of Syracuse University's Center for the Study of Popular Television.
Indeed, Court TV functions much like other news TV operations. Every morning at 8 p.m. ET, news executives huddle with producers, anchors and reporters to decide the day's coverage. Reporters and field producers are dispatched. There's an assignment desk, an operations department, and a team of staffers dedicated to tracking developments at trials.
But, whereas CNN counts thousands of staffers and Fox News runs with several hundred, Court TV is a lean operation, about 77 staffers on daytime. When a big legal story breaks, broadcast and cable news operations may send four or five bookers to the scene. Court TV sends one.
Court TV's advantage, though, is that everyone is trained in one thing: legal news. "This is what we live and breathe," says Senior Vice President of Daytime Marlene Dann, whose uncle, Michael Dann, headed CBS's programming from 1963 to 1970. With a major story, Court TV's people are likely "already know something about it, have a lot of contacts and have experience with the story."
Take the Michael Jackson scoop. Anchor Diane Dimond, who got a full-time anchor contract last week, has been following the case since 1993 and knows all the key players. So when she got a tip that something big was about to happen, "we were able to put her and a producer in place and send them out the West Coast," said Dann, a former CNBC and PBS producer.
The Jackson story has boosted Court's ratings. Daytime Nielsen marks doubled to a 0.4 household for Nov. 19 and 20. In prime time, magazine show Hollywood at Large
posted its best-ever rating, a 0.8.
Court's news abilities will surely be tested in coming months. The Bryant, Scott Peterson and Blake cases are slated to go to trial next year. And who knows what other celebrities will get into trouble.
When the docket fills up, Court TV does contract more camera crews, technicians and stringers. It also draws off its affiliate relationships with NBC Newschannel and CNN (CNN parent Time Warner co-owns Court TV with Liberty Media). It gets access to some broadcast news resources through partnerships with NBC News' Dateline
and ABC NEWS magazine Primetime.
But the current spate isn't overwhelming the operation, says Dann. Rather, she contends Court TV is at its peak. During major stories, its anchors and reporters are fixtures on cable news programs. The week the Jackson story broke, Court TV anchor Nancy Grace, a regular on CNN's Larry King Live, subbed for King and had Dimond as her guest for the entire hour. Catherine Crier, host of Court's nightly Catherine Crier Live, is another popular guest.