Court TV grabs viewers by showcasing dual offerings

To change the public's perception of it as just a network offering gavel-to-gavel coverage, Court TV embarked upon an effort to show that its programming is as different as night and day.

To change the public's perception of it as just a network offering gavel-to-gavel coverage, Court TV embarked upon an effort to show that its programming is as different as night and day.

When Court TV launched in 1991, the landscape of cable television was very different, from both a news and entertainment standpoint. CNN had been around for just over a decade, CNBC was in its infancy, and Fox News and MSNBC were both still five years away.

On the other end of the spectrum, MTV still aired music videos, HBO had not yet hit the jackpot with original programming, and reality TV was still a few years from being the next big thing.

Real court cases were clearly part of Court TV's programming from the beginning. But it was the1995 televised trial of O.J. Simpson - a media circus that lasted eight months - that arguably brought full attention to the network and its programming in general.

And for many years, that courtroom programming - following the proceedings of notorious trials, as well as less high-profile court cases - was the bread and butter of the network. Court coverage typically aired during the day, with rebroadcasts or analysis of that day's coverage airing in the evening.

But in 1998, when Henry Schleiff, a TV production veteran, became chairman and CEO, the network decided to take a slightly different approach. It gradually brought in original shows, such as Psychic Detectives and Forensic Files, as well as broadcasts of NYPD Blue and Cops. This split in programming is still the model for the network: During the day, there is live trial coverage, hosted by anchors who are also lawyers. After 6pm, the network shifts to original and justice/investigative-themed programming.

Under Schleiff, the network has been tremendously successful: It boasts 85 million subscribers, up from 30 million in 1998.

'Clarifying' comms

The split in programming, however, is something that has presented a challenge to the network, especially from a PR standpoint. "People tend to just think we're trials all day and night," says Jennifer Geisser, SVP of corporate communications. "Prime time is a big part of what we want to promote, as well as daytime, but in a different way."

To remedy the misperception of the network's programming, Court TV recently embarked on an ambitious marketing campaign designed as a "clarification" for media and ultimately viewers. During the day, the network is branded as "Court TV News," while the evening programming falls under the heading, "Court TV: Seriously Entertaining." Although the campaign did not begin until July, the PR department went to work as early as March, announcing the split to its affiliates and ad sales community, as well as to the trade and business press.

Geisser says the campaign was a fully integrated effort. In New York, taxis bore the label "Getaway Car"; buses carried signs reading, "Witness Relocation"; sidewalks were renamed "Perp Walk"; and ads pasted on phone booths read "The Lookout." Geisser says all were designed to demonstrate how there are two sides to everything - including Court TV.

"You look at our network in two different ways," she says. The campaign also included street teams delivering "seriously refreshing" mints and "seriously cool" cup holders to reporters.

Ed Robertson, a television historian and contributing writer to Media Life, says that the campaign shows that Court TV is skewing toward the all-important 18-to-24 demographic. "Since you've got other channels that provide the kind of shows that you [offer], you do what you can to drive your target audience back to you, however you define your target audience," he says. "That's just good strategy."

Introducing new programs, such as reality show Parco, PI - which follows a New York family in the private investigation business - was also a major part of the effort. But Anne Becker, a staff writer at Broadcasting & Cable, says that the success of the individual programs isn't as important as whether viewers associate a certain brand with Court TV. "Branding means a lot to these niche cable networks," she says. "In a world of hundreds of cable networks, where your brand is everything, they're smart to further specify and further narrow their brand to different breeds of core programming."

That the communications department played a major part of this "clarification" campaign was pretty much a given because, Geisser says, it plays an integral part in Court TV's planning and strategy. "PR is one of the top priorities in the company," she notes. "We interact with every department, from marketing to affiliates to public affairs to ad sales, supporting them in every way possible."

Giving PR importance

The 12-person PR department comprises three divisions: business and trade, consumer, and special events, the latter of which Geisser admits often contributes to going over budget.

Yet she maintains that the atmosphere at Court TV is one that embraces and fully appreciates the potential and reach of PR. In fact, Court TV's New York headquarters takes up 10 floors in a midtown office building, and PR is the only department, aside from finance, on the same floor with the president and CEO of the network.

"This is how you can tell just how important they put PR," Geisser says.

She attributes that philosophy to the company's top leadership: Schleiff, president Art Bell, and Marc Juris, GM of programming and marketing. "They really understand what PR is and how to utilize it more than anywhere else I've ever been," says Geisser. "So when you have bosses that understand it and get it, it's easier to fight for that extra dollar, and it's easier to explain these off-the-wall ideas that you know will work in the press. Where other executives may say, 'Are you out of your mind?' they say, 'Go for it.'"

Matthew Traub, managing director and chief of staff at Dan Klores Communications, Court TV's AOR, agrees. "Unlike many organizations, they understand and appreciate the value of PR - from the CEO on down," he says. "Everybody there gets it."

Traub says DKC acts as an "extension of the internal PR efforts" at Court TV. The agency also does a lot of work on the network's "In Pursuit of Justice" initiative, a multiplatform public service effort. For example, Geisser says that DKC recently assisted with publicity surrounding the network's airing of Home of the Brave, a documentary that chronicles the life of Viola Liuzzo, the only white woman murdered for her role in the civil rights movement. DKC conducted media outreach to the local press in New York, Montgomery, AL, and Philadelphia.

Another event DKC helped coordinate was a recent discussion titled, "The Rule of Law versus The Rule of Journalism." The panel event, moderated by Court TV anchor Catherine Crier, examined the issue of confidential sources and featured among its panelists Time Inc. editor-in-chief Norman Pearlstine and Vanity Fair columnist Michael Wolff.

The event got plenty of media attention because Pearlstine revealed that he didn't believe the anonymous tip Time reporter Matthew Cooper received regarding the Valerie Plame CIA leak case was valuable enough to justify a promise of confidentiality.

While such events do not directly promote any of Court TV's offerings, Traub says, they are still important for its image. The idea, he says, is to get out the message that Court TV is more than "gavel-to-gavel" coverage.

"It would never be wise for a network, even a successful one like Court TV, to rest on its laurels," he adds. "We want to continue to go out there and create a situation where the network will attract more viewers, more subscribers, and more advertisers."

Geisser says that one of the network's immediate goals is to raise the visibility of its prime-time programming, as the news offerings are already well understood.

"We're doing bigger marketing campaigns that we ever have with press supporting it - which is great," she says. "When you can get press off a marketing campaign, it's really impressive."

PR contacts

SVP of corporate communications Jennifer Geisser

VP of program publicity Patty Caruso

VP of business and trade (media) Carole Shander

PR agency Dan Klores Communications

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