BROOKE GLADSTONE: We're back with On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD: And I'm Bob Garfield. When the reality TV show Survivor exploded last summer, there was talk it would transform the viewing habits of a nation, possibly forever. But the home of reality television is actually on cable. It's Court TV and it turns ten years old this month. Despite the critics' initial predictions of failure, the cable channel founded by media impresario Steve Brill has expanded from the measly 6 million subscribers it had back in 1991 to 40 million today. Court TV promised gavel to gavel coverage and delivered on it almost immediately with the coverage of the rape trial of William Kennedy Smith. The public was transfixed.
WOMAN WITNESS: He tackled me, and I was on the ground and he was on top of me. He raped me.
WILLIAM KENNEDY SMITH: The issue here is I'm innocent! And how do you defend yourself from somebody who says the word "rape?"
BOB GARFIELD: After that, the deluge: Jeffrey Dahmer, Jack Kevorkian, Rodney King, Lorena Bobbit, Tonya Harding and of course the Menendez brothers. If Steve Brill imagined a niche appeal, a so-called "C-Span for legal junkies," the trial of O.J. Simpson beginning in 1994 trashed that. Millions tuned in every day. Defense and prosecution lawyers Johnnie Cochran and Marcia Clarke became overnight stars. Even the presiding judge, Ito would be tabloid fodder.
JOHNNIE COCHRAN: Don't be part of this continuing coverup. Do the right thing, remembering that if it doesn't fit, you must acquit.
BOB GARFIELD: To date, Court TV has televised more than 730 trials and provided more than 28,000 hours of courtroom trial coverage. With me to talk about the last ten years of courtroom viewing is Court TV CEO Henry Schleiff. Mr. Schleiff, what effect did the O.J. trial have on the fortunes of Court TV?
HENRY SCHLEIFF: You know I think it was a two-edged sword, because it, it did bring even further prominence, popularity, ratings to Court TV. On the other hand, I think frankly the network was a little bit condemned as a result of a verdict that most people felt was incorrect.
BOB GARFIELD: You took some of the fallout for the O.J. verdict?
HENRY SCHLEIFF:Yeah, I think a lot of people felt that Court TV was somehow associated with some of the circus-like atmosphere that prevailed during that trial. I mean demonstrably our ratings fell off after O.J. Was that purely due to the prominence of that trial and the lack of anything to rival it since? I think there's some of that, but I think there's some aspect of the, the -- of the prior qualities to it also.
BOB GARFIELD: Well let's talk about that for a moment. Such notable defense lawyers as Jerry Spence--
HENRY SCHLEIFF: Yeah.
BOB GARFIELD:-- very flamboyant Texas defense lawyer has said that the presence of cameras in the courtroom changes the dynamic of a trial for the worse. What do you think about that?
HENRY SCHLEIFF: I think that to see the process unfold serves a greater good to society than anything else. I think all in -- will you have perhaps on occasion counsel or testimony that panders to a camera? I think the more and more we have cameras -- and now it's been ten years -- I think that's the exception. I think in fact the majority of the practicing bar and the majority of the judiciary and indeed the far majority of states -- I think it's something like 45, 47 states now allow cameras in the courtroom!
BOB GARFIELD: Do you think people are watching Court TV to immerse themselves in these issues or do you think they're just digging the dirt?
HENRY SCHLEIFF:I think we have a portion of our viewers who enjoy the pure information that you can get from watching the process unfold. I think we have viewers who are in this looking at the titillation if you will that comes from a more prominent or high profile trial. They look at these as little soap operas in many cases. Sometimes they love or hate a participant or the judge or a witness or the defendant. We offer a lot. It depends upon the viewer as to what one takes away.
BOB GARFIELD: One of the premises for Court TV is for viewers to have a better understanding of what happen in the criminal justice system.
HENRY SCHLEIFF: Right.
BOB GARFIELD:Now comes in the last few years the drama shows which, while they're probably more verisimilitudinous than they used to be --NYPD Blue and Homicide -- still dramatically contract all of the events around a, a criminal case -- let's just say to the point of distortion -- isn't that kind of a paradox?
HENRY SCHLEIFF: Is there a paradox? No, I don't think so at all, quite honestly Bob. I think you're reading the world of crime and justice too narrowly. To say that there's not room for one other aspect or other aspects I think is, is, is too narrow a vision. People have an endless fascination with all aspects of the law!
BOB GARFIELD:If the numbers for NYPD Blue and whatever drama programs you're running on the Court TV network really begin to move the needle and the live courtroom stuff continues to contract, can you foresee a day when Court TV has very little court reality and a whole lot of court drama?
HENRY SCHLEIFF: Courts and court coverage and trial coverage is so integral to our brand that you know we may look for ways to do it better or differently, but-- no, I, I, I think it is absolutely indispensable to Court TV's history and to our future.
BOB GARFIELD: Carlo Del Ponti and Slobodan Milosevic--
HENRY SCHLEIFF: Yeah.
BOB GARFIELD: -- they going to play in Peoria?
HENRY SCHLEIFF:[LAUGHS] I think regardless of the number of vowels in someone's name or where they come from, trials are really fundamentally stories of human emotion, of human interest, of conflict. So yeah, I think-- what you'll see is that we'll do them in a way that I think our viewers in Peoria will be able to relate to them!
BOB GARFIELD: Well thank you very much for joining us!
HENRY SCHLEIFF: Thank you, Bob.
BOB GARFIELD: Henry Schleiff is the chairman and chief executive officer of the Court TV Network celebrating its tenth anniversary.