Media: The channel where the stars are behind bars: Millions of Americans are tuning in to Court TV, the cable service that brings the legal system into their homes. Peter Pringle reports

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The Independent Online
WITH SO many sensational trials in the United States, Court TV, the 24-hour cable channel direct from the courtroom, has become a cult hit. It is taken by 15.4 million households, and the OJ Simpson trial may push Court TV through the break- even point - only three years after it began.

It is partly luck. The Woody Allen custody case was followed by the trial of the Menendez brothers, who gunned down their parents, the Lorena Bobbitt penis- lopping case, the Rodney King beating trial, Tonya Harding . . . and now OJ. BBC 2 will be taking weekly excerpts of the OJ trial from the specialist network.

But Court TV's success is also due to the man who had the brilliant idea of bringing the courtroom into American homes. Steven Brill, 43, has commercialised the American justice system as never before. In addition to Court TV, he launched the highly successful American Lawyer magazine, which has been showered with awards, and has a stable of smaller legal publications.

There seems no reason why the success of Court TV should not continue. Americans are obsessed with exploring the recesses of the criminal mind and they are no longer content with the made-up world of LA Law. They want the real thing.

Brill claims the idea came to him in a taxi in New York, where he lives and works. He was listening to the radio report of a trial and thought that 'the way to make law very dramatic and accessible to people is through video, not through print'.

It took the late Steve Ross, then chairman and chief executive of what was Warner Communications (now Time Warner), about a minute to agree to chip in, and Court TV was born. Brill told Ross it would be like a 'mix of C-Span (televised debates in Congress and long, dull but important conference speeches) and soap operas'.

Court cases have always been the staple diet of the tabloids, but Brill prefers to promote the serious side of the enterprise: 'If you present people with the entire story and explain to them what is going on, it is undeniably a good way to learn about a misunderstood branch of government.' A few critics - notably Alan Dershowitz, the Harvard law professor who is on OJ Simpson's legal team - are unimpressed. He thinks Court TV is a good idea but complains: 'All they cover is sex, gore and pornography.'

Brill replies: 'When they do the made-for-TV movies about the Menendez case, they'll probably have to stay closer to the facts because of our coverage . . . I like to think we serve as an antidote, a reality check, against the tabloidisation of trials.'

Court TV scored heavily with the Bobbitt trial, even so. Brill says he did not realise how popular it would be and thought it was a joke - until the lawyers turned it into an abuse case. 'When I watched her testify, I was very glad we decided to carry it because it really brought home the issue of spousal abuse. And with us and CNN carrying the whole trial, as opposed to people talking about the worst 10 seconds or so of sound bites . . . I'm utterly convinced that our coverage made that case a serious case, which is what it deserved to be.'

Court TV claims sensational cases are only 10 per cent of its programming. 'We also carry very boring, if not the most boring, television anywhere,' says Steve Johnson, executive producer. Other cases covered include freedom of religion, abortion rights, drunken driving, euthanasia, gun control, Aids, mental illness and age discrimination. There are still some limits imposed by law. Though state courts are becoming more used to the idea of being filmed, federal courts ban cameras. That means missing important trials such as the Waco cult.

There are still quite enough open courts - in 48 of the 50 states - to make good money, apparently, and the market is expanding. Industry insiders say Court TV is about to break even, but Johnson says they have to be careful not to boast about ratings or judges might regard them as vulgar capitalists and turn them away. 'Each time we film we have to apply to get into the courts, and we're not supposed to be there to boost ratings,' he says. 'If we get kicked out, we're dead.'

Court TV has already arranged full coverage of the OJ trial, except for the jury selection, which could take several weeks. While the trial could do for Court TV what the Gulf war did for CNN, Brill does not own exclusive rights. Court TV will be competing with the networks, but they will only be able to cover highlights, leaving the 'soap opera junkies' and new advertising to Brill's expanding coffers.

The preliminary hearings have already brought in a rush of advertising for Court TV, which is starting to move away from 'direct mail' ads to more household products. But because its fans are so devoted it has to be even more careful than the networks not to miss key parts of the drama. 'If OJ takes the stand for a week, we'll have a hard time interrupting him with ads,' Johnson admits.