Disorder in the Court


Last May, when Time Warner bought out partner Liberty Media and took over the whole shebang that is Court TV, it was clear there'd be changes beyond de rigueur cutbacks.

But when Turner Entertainment President Steve Koonin, who oversees Court as well as TBS and TNT for his Time Warner corporate masters, announced last month that he was going to change the name of the place, it was a truly shocking development. In our current seemingly million-channel universe, how do you take one of the most venerable brands there is and trade it for who knows what? Seems like pure lunacy to me.

When the case for the rebrand was made—although they're being coy about what the name will actually be—Turner folks claimed they were hamstrung by the Court TV moniker. Here was an opportunity to delve head-first into the deep end of fare both unscripted and scripted. The change offered the prospect of convincing Madison Avenue that the place was not mired in the limited reach of its daytime trial coverage—a throwback to the era of Court TV founder Steven Brill.

Quite frankly, the argument went, the network wasn't cashing in the way other joints have, like A&E and Discovery, when they expanded their brands with blood, guts and gory true-crime stuff.

But I don't believe the Court TV brand is what's holding the place back. Sounds to me like the typical argument network sales guys hear from buyers and use as an alibi to tell their bosses why they can't get higher rates. Under Brill's successor, Henry Schleiff, Court TV managed to expand the definition of its brand, increasing ratings and the bottom line.

Furthermore, Court didn't need a name change to increase its audience in February by 37% in the target 18-49 demo. The network did it with the right programming and a smart promotional push.

Pressure from the sales and marketing side to change Court TV's name is not new. Schleiff, who's now running the Hallmark Channel and is usually one of the most voluble execs in the business, has diplomatically declined to discuss the coming name change at his alma mater. But during his eight-year tenure, he fought against it.

My guess is that he believed the Court TV name had a certain cachet with viewers that made them feel OK to watch the sleazy crime stuff in a place that had a certain legacy of legitimacy, no matter how far it may have strayed from that as its core. Advertisers shared that comfort level—much more so than if it had been called, say, Crime TV or the Reality Network.

To me, this whole name-change thing smacks of the new guys' coming in and wanting so much to put their stamp on the place that they'll risk alienating their core constituency of both advertisers and viewers.

Other networks have managed to successfully reinvent themselves and broaden their audience without a name change. Bravo and USA leap to mind. Hell, Koonin did it successfully at TNT with the slogan “We Know Drama” and the “Very Funny,” campaign at TBS. Success clearly can be built on smart programming, original and acquired, coupled with a good dose of savvy marketing to broaden a network's brand.

It's a lesson the current crew in charge at Court TV ought to know well: As they pepper their lineup with more-sensational and salacious fare, they should cling to the name. I'm telling you guys, Court TV by any other name won't sell as sweet.

E-mail comments to bcrobins@reedbusiness.com