While the verdict in the all-consuming Casey Anthony trial has been rendered, the story remains white-hot for the Orlando TV outlets covering this media colossus.
The big remaining issues for reporters are the reaction of the community to Anthony's acquittal on charges of murdering her daughter Caylee (the reading of the verdict nearly sparked a mob scene outside the Orlando courthouse), her sentencing the morning of July 7 for misleading law enforcement, a civil suit involving a woman alleged during the trial to be Caylee's babysitter, and trying to get jurors to offer their perspective on what went on in the deliberation room.
That Anthony may well walk free in a matter of hours may create a whole new media firestorm, replete with news helicopters, vans, paparazzi and the general public following her every move. By some estimates, 60% of the TVs in DMA No. 19 have been tuned to trial coverage at any given time.
"That's unheard of," says Robin Smythe, VP and GM at Bright House Networks' Orlando channel News 13. "I thought those days were over."
From a news perspective, the Anthony trial had it all: a dead child, a young, attractive mother, a colorful judge, passionate lawyers on both sides and, that courtroom staple--a dysfunctional family. "It's the most unique, interesting and emotional story I've covered in a bunch of years," says Bob Longo, news director at WESH. "It's a made for TV movie that played out for real."
While the judge released the names of the alternate jurors, some of whom spoke to TV reporters, the names of the main jurors were not revealed. Each interested media outlet, most certainly including the Orlando stations, submitted a letter addressing the jurors, explaining why they want an interview, and offering up the names of reporters who would conduct the interview. The judge passed along the requests in a packet to each juror.
But stations are being more proactive than that, reporters working off vague juror profiles to knock on doors and see if they can come up with some names and numbers. "You send reporters to Pinellas County and you shake the trees," says Jeff Zeller, VP and News Director at WOFL. "You knock on doors and see what you can find out."
Countless pundits are finding an apt comparison for the Anthony trial, and the level of viewer interest in it, to the O.J. Simpson murder trial from 1995. The key distinction is that social media, including Twitter, Facebook and the interactive web, kept users informed on the Anthony proceedings on all manner of media platforms. "While O.J. was the catalyst for cable TV, Casey Anthony was the catalyst for social media," says Longo.
Multiple execs at TV outlets commend the courts for keeping a steady flow of information coming out of the trial, and for allowing real-time reporting inside the courtroom. Reporters could type dispatches from inside Orange County Courthouse, as long as it was on a virtual keyboard that did not distract the attendees with a tapping sound. Each station relied on a flow of Twitter messages to keep users informed. WESH, for one, even started the Twitter account @JudgePerrySays to detail the insightful and blunt comments coming out of jurist Belvin Perry's mouth. Nearly 10,000 people follow the feed. "It was quite fascinating, in and of itself," says WESH digital media manager Gabe Travers.
WKMG took a common web concept--the chat room--and put it on the TV screen during the trial to considerable success. Seeing how popular a live user chat was on ClickOrlando.com with reporter Tony Pipitone on site during jury selection, the station put its "Chat Box" on the screen during the live trial coverage, and let viewers sound off.
At some points, in excess of 15,000 users participated in the open forum. "It quickly became one of the most popular things we've ever done," says Steve Hyvonen, news director at WKMG.
With wall to wall coverage throughout daytime for several weeks, the stations used their sister and digital channels to air network programming. WFTV, for one, worked out an agreement with partner ABC to run the likes of The View and the daytime soaps on independent sister WRDQ. "That enabled us to serve all our viewers," said Shawn Bartelt, WFTV-WRDQ VP and GM.
The Orlando stations are owned by some heavy hitters, including Cox, Post-Newsweek, Hearst TV and Fox. The trial made for some interesting bedfellows. Hearst's WESH and Cox's WFTV shared the lease on a plot of land located kitty-corner to the courthouse, so both could set up a base of operations. Fox owned WOFL worked with Clear Channel to have its TV reporters give on air debriefs each day to local AM and FM outlets.
Within the corporate family, News 13 got a helping hand from personnel at siblings Bay News 9 in Tampa and Bright House Sports Network.
All things Anthony will dominate the Orlando coverage for the foreseeable future, but that's not to say central Florida is lacking in other major news of the day. A space shuttle, for one, is scheduled to take off out of Kennedy Space Center July 8. Elliott Wiser, Bright House Networks v.p. of news and local programming, likens the mood at the local outlets to that just after the tropical storms the region is better known for than murder trials involving mothers and daughters: Exhausted yet energized reporters slowly turning their attention to the less fantastic news staples.
"The day after the storm, the sun comes out," Wiser says. "You still go out and cover the news."