Nobody had to beat Henry Schlieff over the head to get him to submit to pressure over Court TV's controversial new show, Confessions. The Court TV president yanked the program from the schedule after just two episodes, responding to the protests of crime victims' groups that the concept brought back visions of their own experiences.
"We anticipated controversy," Schlieff said. "What we didn't anticipate was the level of feelings some of these groups had. I just didn't factor that it. We want to do the right thing."
The stark show featured videotaped confessions of criminals taken by police interrogators, crude one-camera videos of suspects describing their crimes. Some of the clips were just a few minutes long, focusing on some grabbing detail. And shock was clearly an aim. The first episode featured the confession of a New York City man who dismembered a Swiss dancer, then disposed of her in part by checking a bone-filled suitcase at the Port Authority Bus Terminal.
The show scored a 0.6, not a screamer by Court TV's standards today, when the long-sluggish network is scoring 0.8s. But it's a number for which Schleiff would have dropped to his knees and prayed a year ago, when the network was running with just a 0.1 to 0.2 Nielsen.
Court TV executives said they had expected criticism that the network was glorifying "animals." But the show provoked an odd response from victims, who said the confessions revived the anxieties they felt in the immediate aftermath of the crimes committed against them.
"We got as many e-mails saying, 'I'm amazed how mundane and stupid these guys looked,'" Schleiff said. "What I could not debate was feelings."
Still, "we thought the heat was unbelievable," said another Court TV executive.
MSO executives said they had no complaints about the show, nor were advertisers protesting. "I thought it was a good show," said Jerry Della Femina, partner in New York advertising agency Della Femina/Jerry. "But I also think Henry's doing the right thing by pulling it."
Schlieff said the confession tapes, the first of which came from the Manhattan District Attorney, may reappear in documentaries on confessions or episodes for crime stories.