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Making the Case for Court TV

Johnnie L. Cochran Jr. has proven himself in the courtroom. But can the lawyer win over viewers for the revamped cable network?

May 23, 1999|PAUL LIEBERMAN | Paul Lieberman is a Times staff writer

NEW YORK — Straight-faced as can be, the nation's best-known lawyer announces that he has a skewering cross-examination planned for the folks from "Law & Order."

For one thing, how come the poor defense attorneys always lose on that NBC crime drama? And it's bad enough that the prosecutors are the heroes--how dare they leave those nasty D.A.s alone with the defendant on every case? What self-respecting defense attorney would let that happen?

One more thing: How come they replaced Michael Moriarty, who played the lead D.A.? "They ran him off!" complains Johnnie L. Cochran Jr. "I want Mike back!"

It's two hours before his own show, "Johnnie Cochran Tonight," goes on the air at Court TV, and Cochran is trying out his quips on a coterie of young producers and bookers clustered around metal desks littered with videotapes.

The main guest will be "Law & Order's" creator, Dick Wolf, who is eager to promote a "crossover" episode in which his cast combines with the characters from "Homicide: Life on the Street" in a story line--purely fiction, of course--centering on an overeager prosecutor and hanky-panky in the White House.

"It wouldn't be the worst thing to mention 'Homicide,' " one producer reminds Cochran, drawing a burst of laughter. For their cable network--launched eight years ago to broadcast live trials--has just bought the rights to air reruns of that NBC cop drama.

Still, one staffer wonders whether Cochran shouldn't bash the whole genre of shows that fictionalize the law. "I used to love 'L.A. Law' until I started working here and realized how ridiculous it is," the fellow says. "Doesn't it bother you?"

Cochran is patient. Apparently the staffer didn't get his banter. He's a fan of "Law & Order." Besides, aren't they in the same boat, everyone just trying to discover what it takes to survive in this cruel, competitive medium?

"Oh, it's a little glamorized," Cochran says. "It's a little dramatic license, that's all."

"Dramatic license" is very much the formula these days in the head-spinning mix of lawyers and television. There's got to be some drama if you want to entertain--and get more than your mother to watch. To do that, you may need to take some license--beyond the one on your wall.

We're not talking only about the tradition of make-believe TV lawyers performing make-believe feats, whether it's Perry Mason extracting confessions on the stand or Ally McBeal rolling up more fantasies than billable hours.

The real action today is in the real lawyers and how they've run amok all over the tube.

Many were first recruited as talking heads during Cochran's breakout case, the criminal trial of O.J. Simpson, then hung around to give their spin on JonBenet and Monica and Littleton, Colo. The best got their own shows, or began making the rounds from Larry King to the nightly magazines, or the daily law face-offs, CNN's "Burden of Proof" and CNBC's "Rivera Live."

The judges reappeared, too.

"The People's Court," with ol' Judge Wapner, had gone off the air before Simpson. Soon Judge Ed Koch was back on that bench, and there were Judge Joe Brown and Judge Mills Lane and the best-selling Judge Judy. Now her hubby is set to replace Koch, and who can blame Wapner for coming back with "Animal Court" or the Playboy Channel for pitching in last summer with "Sex Court," featuring the mostly disrobed "Judge" Julie?

Beyond any reasonable doubt, however, the best place to gauge what's happening with TV lawyers is here at Court TV. Started in 1991 by American Lawyer magazine publisher Steven Brill under the belief that "what was really exciting was watching the trial system, not reading about it," the network long was a bastion of purity amid the vast wasteland.

It did not turn away from sexy trials, whether of the murdering Menendez brothers or Massachusetts vs. Woodward, the British nanny. But Brill also insisted on carrying the U.N. War Crimes Tribunal on Bosnia from the Hague, with a commentator in the studio, professor Burt Neuborne, who was bald, pudgy and, by his own description, "far from a matinee idol."

The network earned rave reviews and a place in good-intentions heaven. Along with ratings that occasionally spiked during blockbuster trials--an astounding 4.2 during Simpson's--but generally were down in . . . well, that other place. Try 0.1 for the prime-time hours, barely a blip in the Nielsens, about as low as you can go.

In the sink-or-swim ocean of cable, it was drowning under such niche networks as Comedy Central, Country Music Television and Animal Planet, "all animals all the time."

So there have been changes at Court TV. Brill is out. Henry Schleiff is in. He's a lawyer, yes, but also a veteran of the Montel Williams and Maury Povich shows. In recent months, he's overseen some tweaking of the balance between the informational and entertainment functions.

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