Milestone: Court TV at 15

After 15 years, Court TV has become a formidable channel -- and a major acquisition property.

Time Warner is no doubt grateful that Schleiff persuaded them to take that chance. Eight years later, Court TV has gone from a struggling also-ran to a profitable venture with enough growth prospects to justify a $1.5 billion price tag, $735 million of which Time Warner forked over to Liberty last month for full control of the network. Just in time for its 15th year of operation, Court TV is ready to reap the benefits of a change in venue.

"It's come so far, and yet there's more growth ahead for the channel," Schleiff says.

Court TV has come a long way since its inception in 1991. It was the brainchild of American Lawyer magazine founder Steven Brill, who envisioned it as an eye on America's courtrooms. NBC owned the channel, along with Time Warner and Liberty.

Although the channel became a household name with its pioneering coverage of the O.J. Simpson trial in 1995, the channel's growth prospects were murky at best. By 1998, Time Warner and Liberty bought out NBC; they soon turned to Schleiff and his team to figure out a future for the network, then appearing in only 30 million homes.

"The fact of the matter is, there were issues about ownership, a lack of clarity about what the brand was going to be and not a whole lot of ratings on the board," Court TV president Art Bell recalls. "And there weren't a lot of pronouncements being made as to what the plan was. As soon as we came in, we had to prove Court TV was viable."

It became clear to Schleiff and his team that Court TV could not subsist on trials alone, which aired in the daytime and then were analyzed during primetime. They began the process of building a primetime schedule, focusing entertainment programming on themes that echoed the trials.

Court TV evolved beyond expert trial coverage to quality programming devoted to real stories derived from all aspects of the criminal justice system. Off-net acquisitions such as "Homicide: Life on the Street" and "NYPD Blue" were added, providing a foundation for successful original series including "Dominick Dunne's Power, Privilege and Justice," "Forensic Files" and "Psychic Detectives."

During the last five years, Court TV has been in a near-constant state of self-improvement. The refinement is especially noticeable in daytime programming, where nonstop courtroom footage has evolved into a slick personality-driven package that has allowed Court TV to run second only to Fox News Channel in daytime cable ratings. Catherine Crier and Nancy Grace have made names for themselves with their own programs on the channel. Jack Ford, Ashleigh Banfield and Vinnie Politan are the next generation of Court TV stars, predicts Court TV News executive vp Marlene Dann.

"We are turning out more and more of the people who are counted as true experts in their field," she says. "Our anchors are the key to the coverage."

In primetime, Court TV general manager Marc Juris has orchestrated a revamp of the channel's on-air look, infusing a more dynamic sensibility that has begun to bring down the channel's median age, which decreased from 53 to 50 last year. Primetime itself was branded with the acronym RED -- "Real. Exciting. Dynamic." -- in January, and the changes are starting to yield results. In the first quarter of the year, Court TV registered its highest-rated quarter to date with adults 18-49, averaging 924,000 viewers nightly.

Not content to rely on the usual diet of documentaries, Court TV is even venturing into the scripted-programming space for the first time in 2007, with "'Til Death Do Us Part," an anthology of dramatic murder stories. Shooting is slated to begin soon, with cult favorite John Waters onboard as host.

Although Court TV's daytime schedule is essentially a news operation, Time Warner's Turner Broadcasting System chose to slot the network with Turner Entertainment Group because Court TV's primetime schedule has ratings and revenue on a scale approximating fellow Turner networks TBS and TNT. But that won't disconnect Court TV from Turner's CNN entirely; Turner Entertainment Group president Mark Lazarus plans to work with the news network to explore ways the two channels could share resources on courtroom-based news coverage.

In Court TV, Turner gets itself a healthy property that gives it added scale in a rapidly consolidating cable business dominated by such conglomerates as Viacom and News Corp., which have packed portfolios. While those companies have dozens of digital channels under their umbrellas, Time Warner has taken a more selective approach, favoring fully mature operations like Court TV.

"We decided to add this as an acquisition because it fit a good space with us that was complementary to what we were doing to our own businesses," Lazarus says.

The Court TV brand is currently bifurcated into brands highlighting its disparate dayparts. Daytime programming is known as Court TV News, while primetime is known as Court TV: Seriously Entertaining. It's a distinction Turner appreciates, having created a similar split in its Cartoon Network brand, whose successful late-night block, Adult Swim, is now its own network.

Now in 86 million homes, Court TV has practically maxed out its distribution, though there's serious growth potential on a number of other fronts. It's the type of growth that can be impossible to achieve as an independent. But Court TV will surely capitalize on Turner's deeper pockets to expand its programming efforts, cross-marketing opportunities with other Turner channels that pump up its promotional base on the cheap, as well as efficiencies in backroom operations like affiliate sales.

Although there will be some duplication in Court TV and CNN's newsgathering operations, the channels don't overlap much on the courtroom beat. CNN rarely delves as deeply as Court TV into anything but the most high-profile trials, which will make for some collaborative synergy.

Court TV also comes in handy for Turner in terms of making off-net acquisitions. For years, TBS and TNT have put their savings together to pony up for expensive movie packages that both channels could tap. But more recently, as their brands have diverged distinctly into the comedy and drama territories, respectively, Court TV and TNT might have more in common than TNT and TBS.

"Court TV is about crime and punishment and consequences that go with it. Much of the drama programming on TNT has that also," Lazarus says.

Such similarities could be assets for off-net drama series, allowing Court TV and TNT to split the bill on expensive crime-oriented shows that can blend with both of their brands. There already are expectations that Court TV could eventually get a piece of TNT's reruns of NBC's "Law & Order" in time, though the companies declined comment. A more feasible scenario would be to take advantage of "L&O's" ripped-from-the-headlines stories, using them as a springboard for Court TV documentaries about the real stories that inspired given "L&O" episodes.

Lazarus says that's just one of the potential collaborations being bandied about as the two sides consider their new future together. "We're all one company now," he says. "We will start to share common voice and vision towards the future."

But the absorption of Court TV will not be without its sacrifices. Turner announced the layoff of 50 Court TV employees on June 20, and more are expected in departments where there are redundancies.

Says Bell, "Turner's interest in us only validates what we've been doing the past 15 years. Now, we've got more growth in store over the next 15."
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