NEW YORK — Court TV tapped fortuitously into the zeitgeist in 1995 as the public obsessed over O.J. Simpson's criminal trial and ratings soared.
Once Simpson's trial ended, though, with nothing else of that magnitude to follow, the channel's easy ride got bumpier.
Now, celebrity trials are back in the news, but it's not the old Court TV anymore. It's "Court TV: The Investigation Channel," reflecting a more entertainment-oriented strategy the network adopted because big trials didn't come along often enough to sustain it.
So as a flood of high-profile trials approaches -- those of former NBA player Jayson Williams, Robert Blake, Martha Stewart, Kobe Bryant, newly minted celebrity Scott Peterson, and the biggest of all, Michael Jackson -- Court TV last week threw a New York City party for the premiere tonight of its original movie on the decidedly nonglitzy topic of political asylum, "Chasing Freedom."
In the coming weeks and months, the network will perform a delicate balancing act, and not just with overlapping courtroom dates. Throughout daytime hours, it will juggle coverage of the various high-profile trials. In addition, the network's star Jackson-watcher, reporter and anchor, Diane Dimond, will be a frequent commentator on NBC's "Today."
Court TV won't be alone in covering these trials. Attention is devoted to the latest high-profile trials from the major broadcast networks down to specialty cable networks. It's evident in the fleets of satellite trucks: outside the New York courthouse where Stewart was arraigned, all but engulfing the Eagle County, Colo., courthouse any time Bryant has appeared, and augmented with an armada of foreign reporters Friday for Jackson's appearance in Santa Maria, Calif.
But Court TV officials hope the daytime trial-watchers will also stick around for prime time and still tune in after the trials are over. In the past five years, Court TV has invested hundreds of millions of dollars in original prime-time series, such as "Psychic Detective," in which psychics solve crimes, and "House of Clues," in which amateur sleuths use household items to create a profile of regular homeowners, along with reruns of the likes of "NYPD Blue."
"In the past, there's been this niche audience of avid court watchers," Dimond said. "They're all very wise and very astute. But now all these trials open us up to a whole new audience and can bring millions of eyes to the network. It's the rebirth of Court TV. We have the potential to be a real powerhouse."
The new prime time strategy has already been showing progress, as the network finished the year with an average of 838,000 viewers nightly, up 14% and its highest average since its founding in 1991. By comparison, the top cable network for the year, TNT, drew an average 2.3 million viewers nightly. Court TV's growth for the year outpaced the 6% increase in subscribers; the channel now reaches about 79 million households.
That compares with about 20 million homes during the Simpson days, said Art Bell, Court TV's president and chief operating officer. "Whatever we do now has a higher impact," he said, adding that this is "Court TV's moment in the sun." Bell pointed to the channel's roster of well-known reporters and anchors, such as Dimond and frequent "Larry King Live" guest Nancy Grace, as well as to how the channel has perfected "the art of covering trials."
The coming slew of high-profile trials isn't in conflict with the new brand the channel has been cultivating, Bell insisted, noting that the question to be answered in all the trials is "exactly what happened? That fits neatly under the umbrella of investigation." Some prime-time shows, such as "Court TV Investigates," will easily adapt to discussion of the daytime trials, although there will be prime-time specials as events warrant.
Court TV will have plenty of competition on the trial scene, with three cable news channels all eagerly following the developments already. CNBC's business viewers have an interest in Stewart, who is charged with obstruction of justice and securities fraud; ESPN's viewers have an interest in Williams and Bryant. But Court TV has a full daytime schedule in which to air trial coverage from those courtrooms that will allow cameras, executives said, and its anchors and reporters will likely appear on other networks to discuss the trials, giving the channel free publicity.
"I say with confidence that while the others are excellent at what they do ... we are the experts on trials and the legal process, so I don't see them as competition," said Marlene Dann, Court TV's senior vice president of daytime programming.