PR Babylon

It's been almost 12 years since the OJ Simpson criminal trial kept viewers across America glued to CourtTV, and the one-time Heisman Trophy winner and rental-car pitchman turned most infamous acquitted felon in American history still elicits dramatically mixed emotions with his very presence.

It's been almost 12 years since the OJ Simpson criminal trial kept viewers across America glued to CourtTV, and the one-time Heisman Trophy winner and rental-car pitchman turned most infamous acquitted felon in American history still elicits dramatically mixed emotions with his very presence.

Case in point: Just two weeks ago, on the eve of the Kentucky Derby, OJ was asked to leave a Louisville steakhouse because "he continues to torment the family whose lives he's already ruined," said restaurant owner Jeff Ruby, in an interview with Inside Edition. According to Ruby, the sight of Simpson receiving a warm reception in his place of business literally made him feel ill. "I didn't want that experience in my restaurant," Ruby explained, adding that following his quiet confrontation with the former NFL running back, some diners actually applauded.

The situation makes for an interesting parallel to the fate of CourtTV itself, a network which has had its own ups and downs since the 133-day "Trial of the Century" put it on the TV map in 1995. Earlier this year, CourtTV announced it would take on a new name, logo, tagline, and on-air look by January 1, 2008, aiming to target a reality-focused psychographic of mostly young men it's referring to as "Real Engagers." In short, the channel plans to add more primetime entertainment programming, revamp its daytime live-trial offerings, and relegate trial coverage to the Web.

CourtTV was founded in 1991 as a joint, trial-focused venture between Time Warner, Liberty Media, and NBC. Originally, the channel aired only real courtroom trials, along with analyses by network correspondents and anchors. But in 1995, CourtTV's still small viewership increased significantly when it brought OJ into homes. According to a CourtTV biographer, at one time or another, 91% of America's TV-viewing audience watched the court proceedings; one report estimated that US industry across the board lost more than $25 billion over the nine-month period as employees collectively blew off their jobs to follow the trial.

And how could we not? The trial's very disturbing, very real content notwithstanding, even the most twisted of television execs couldn't -- and wouldn't -- have made this stuff up. With legal counsel as mesmerizing and unpredictable as the trial's premise itself, real-life characters including Judge Lance Ito, Robert Shapiro, Johnnie Cochran, Barry Scheck, Christopher Darden, and Marcia Clark became as familiar as everyday office colleagues; lines as memorable as movie quotes ("If it doesn't fit, you must acquit") entered the public lexicon; and even courtroom commentators like Greta Van Susteren, Catherine Crier, and Dominick Dunne became household names.

There have been high-profile trials since then, of course. But none have captured the interest of viewers as did OJ, for several reasons: Trial coverage is more readily available now, on the Internet and even by the mainstream media. Some high-status court cases have not been fully televised (Robert Blake, Michael Jackson); some involved subjects that weren't as appealing to viewers across such a wide demographic of race and class (Martha Stewart, NBA player Jayson Williams); and some, well ... it's not easy for casual viewers to see past a parade of difficult wigs. Perhaps most telling of all, in an age of YouTube, MySpace, and TMZ.com, audiences now are accustomed to the Internet's immediate gratification. Users in need of a quick trial fix can easily click and be done, ready to instantly move on to their next celebrity brush with the law.

CourtTV, which was completely acquired by Time Warner and folded into its Atlanta-based Turner Networks division in May 2006, has repositioned itself a number of times in the past, most recently dividing its programming into live trial coverage during the day and "real-life stories and true characters" programming at night. In February 2006, the network saw substantial ratings increases, in fact, with the addition of action-packed primetime entertainment -- the "RED" ("Real. Exciting. Dramatic.") block of unscripted reality series (a la Cops) including Most Shocking, Stupid Crimes, and When Cars Attack. According to Nielsen Media Research, those shows helped the channel reach its most-watched month in history that February, averaging a primetime audience of 1.17 million total viewers; the key 18-49 demo jumped 37% to 506,000, up a third from February 2005. (Only 296,000 viewers ages 18-49 tuned into the network's daytime trial coverage during the same time period. And is it even morally right that we've been turning to criminal trials for our personal entertainment?)

Though rebranding specifics are still on the QT until later this summer, CourtTV has released information about some of the new primetime programming currently in development. Among others, shows are expected to include The Room (a police-interrogation series); The Real Hustle (a con-artist series); and Tiger Team (a high-end security experts series). Also in development are quarterly specials from CourtTV-owned Web site the Smokinggun.com, including a countdown-style series called The Dumbest Criminals in the World.

Daytime programming is expected to include a one-hour talk-show hosted by DA-turned-chatterbox Star Jones Reynolds, offering a "fresh perspective to the day's most talked-about crime and justice stories." Afternoon trial coverage -- prime viewing hours for whom, exactly? -- will move to the Web.

Some long-time CourtTV devotees - many of whom are retired law practitioners and educators - are lamenting the coming changes, urging the channel to keep live-trial coverage as a network mainstay. "I believe that you are making a big mistake," warned one dedicated (retired) viewer, via e-mail on an online chat board. "I believe you will see your ratings fall instead of increase."

"How can you do this?" others ask. How can you leave us with nothing but an hour of "fresh perspective" with Star Jones Reynolds?

It seems, unfortunately, that it will be the Internet for those people - or seats in their local courtrooms: Soon CourtTV as we've come to know it will be no more. The few things that will likely never change? For better or for worse, Americans of a particular age will always have some fascination with OJ Simpson. There will always be some debate over his guilt or innocence in the murders of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman. And regardless of his acquittal, OJ will never be served a filet at a certain Louisville, KY, steakhouse.

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