Fred Graham is proud of his three firsts: first lawyer hired by The New York Times to cover the Supreme Court, first CBS News law correspondent, and the first employee of the Courtroom Television Network.
"In my 35-year career, I've been fortunate to be in the right place at the right time," he beams.
The Arkansas born, Yale/Oxford-educated lawyer and sometimes author certainly has had a knack for securing key posts in some of news media's leading franchises. But while Graham might argue that his current job as managing editor and chief anchor at Court TV is right where he wants to be, there is no denying the most important job of his career was his 15-year stint with CBS News.
Arriving at the broadcast network at the dawn of the Watergate scandal in 1972, Graham settled comfortably into his role as law correspondent for the No. 1 network. But the advent of cable television in the 1980s sent CBS scrambling to hold onto viewers and revenue. As the network bowed to the pressure for more entertaining, bite-size and profitable news, Graham saw his job and his values as a serious reporter being compromised.
"I became disoriented and off balance because I no longer knew what a story was," he would write in his 1991 book, Happy Talk: Confessions of a TV Newsman, a look at his life in the television-news business and a harsh critique of the industry's watering-down practices.
After a bitter break-up with CBS in 1987, Graham took a job as an anchor and senior editor at the struggling local station, WKRN-TV in his old stamping ground, Nashville. After two years of not quite fitting in, Graham was fired.
In the years between 1989 and 1991, Graham wrote Happy Talk and patiently waited for then-American Lawyer magazine publisher Steven Brill to get his brainchild, Court TV, off the ground.
"Steve had told me that he was in negotiations with Steve Ross [then chairman of Warner Communications] to put up money for Court TV from Time Warner," Graham says. "He wanted me to figure out how to make it work."
Court TV debuted in 1991, with skeptics ready to see it collapse under the weight of its own novelty. The baby network got a break five months into its development with the William Kennedy Smith rape trial and broke into a full run with the O.J. Simpson trial in 1995—a case that would also see the network's audience turn against it.
"The O.J. Simpson trial pretty much was a turnaround point. It left a bad taste in peoples' mouths. [They] had their fill of watching trials."
Ironically, much as the broadcast news networks had to do in the 1980s to keep eyeballs and attention spans, Court TV in recent years has surrendered much of its original news mission. Melted-down prime time recaps of its daily trial coverage have been replaced by syndicated crime dramas like NYPD Blue and The Profiler. Court TV's Nielsens have surged from a 0.2 household average to a 0.7.
"After O.J., we've realized, in order to maintain our audience, we had to make it viewer-friendly," Graham explains.
For a man that did not take kindly to "viewer-friendly" twists in his news, Graham has mellowed considerably. He is sympathetic to CNN's attempts to combat Fox News Network by hiring a former actress to anchor its headline news.
"[CNN] is struggling. They had it all to themselves for so long. Now they are having to adjust to the competition," he offers. "It doesn't appear that their first round of adjustments has worked. Fox has a conservative identity working for it. CNN doesn't have that."
However, as history repeats itself among the cable news networks, Fred Graham has made a new home for himself a distance from the battlefield.
"The challenge of keeping the standards up is always there. I appreciate the changes that are going on. It makes life interesting. Come back in 10 years. I'm going to be here."