Court TV banking on Michael Jackson trial

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Michael Jackson's misfortune is the best thing to happen to Court TV since, well, since the Scott Peterson trial, which ended with a death penalty verdict two months ago.

The trial is expected to boost the network's ratings to record levels, providing a marketing platform to promote its prime-time lineup to viewers and attract the attention of advertisers.

It's all part of Court TV CEO Henry Schleiff's grand plan to transform the salacious details of court proceedings into ratings and advertising gold.

Since Mr. Schleiff, an attorney who has become a bold-face regular on Manhattan's cocktail circuit, took over Court TV in 1998 it has vaulted from 33 million to 83 million homes. Ad revenue hit an estimated $TKT million last year, up from $130 million in 2003.

"Court TV has had a spectacular ride. Henry Schleiff has done a good job with it," Bill Cella, CEO of Interpublic Group of Cos.' Magna Global, said.

"He's rebuilt it, given it a brand, and got the ratings," Andy Donchin, senior VP-national broadcast at Carat, added.

Mr. Schleiff's next trick is to bring down the average age of a Court TV viewer-currently in the mid-40s-to a demographic more appealing to media buyers. He recently hired Mark Juris from Fuse, a music network known for its edgy marketing, as general manager-programming and marketing. Mr. Juris hired Fuse's Mary Corigliano as senior VP-marketing. Court TV is co-owned by Time Warner and Liberty Media.

Luckily, celebrity scandals are cooperating with Mr. Schleiff's strategy.

"We have Michael Jackson, [Robert] Blake and Phil Spector right in front of us. Those three trials are literally a `perfect storm,"' said Mr. Schleiff, almost gleefully. "There's no lack of celebrities in trouble."

major gains

The coverage of the Scott Peterson trial from Nov. 30 to mid-December last year ratcheted up Court TV's ratings 300% over the same period in 2003. More than 2.4 million people tuned in for the verdict.

But it's the Michael Jackson trial that's expected to become the most-watched celebrity trial in history, and Court TV plans to make the most of it.

As jury selection began last week, the channel's anchors fanned out across the airwaves to offer their expertise. Lead anchor Diane Dimond's media schedule included NBC's "Today Show," CBS's "Early Show," CNN's "Larry King Live," syndicated "Access Hollywood" and stations from Spain to Japan.

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