The glib defense attorney of 1950s TV used to plow through one trial a week, winning them all with a combination of legalistic prowess and theatrical flair. But in Steve Bochco's 1995 series "Murder One," the entire 22-week run will be devoted to the progression of a single murder trial.
From Mason to Menendez to "Murder One," more and more airtime is being devoted to courtroom TV. And sometimes it's hard to tell where the civics lesson leaves off and entertainment begins. Fiction looks real, and reality exceeds the fantasies of any scriptwriter.
That's got some experts worried. The new spate of more realistic TV dramas, coupled with TV news coverage of actual trials, is blurring the lines between fiction and reality. And critics of the courtroom TV genre argue that's changing the way the public looks at the criminal justice system and maybe even how the system works.
Much of that concern now centers on coverage of the O.J. Simpson murder trial. Harvard law professor Charles Ogletree worries that obsessive coverage of the Simpson proceedings, and the painstaking efforts the court is taking to ensure a fair trial, is creating an erroneous impression of how the legal system really works.
"Viewers are getting the wrong perception of the legal system," said Mr. Ogletree, who's also director of Harvard's Criminal Law Institute and a consultant to NBC News on the Simpson case. "[Los Angeles Deputy District Attorney] Marcia Clark [and Simpson defense attorneys] Robert Shapiro and Johnny Cochran aren't the typical lawyers who try criminal cases on local courts. O.J. Simpson is not the typical defendant, and Judge Lance Ito is not the typical judge.
"My greatest fear is that people will watch this trial and get the sense that our criminal justice system is fair, that people are adequately represented, that judges are careful in making decisions about legal issues and that prosecutors are scrupulous in protecting the rights of the defendants. In fact, that is not the case, and this trial has vastly distorted the reality of everyday criminal cases in the United States."
Those distortions, he maintained, are more damaging than the romanticized Hollywood image of justice depicted in courtroom dramas.
"The thing about `Perry Mason' is that we know it's fiction. And we can separate fact from fiction," Mr. Ogletree said. "In this case, we think it's fiction, and it's reality. Or we think it's reality, but it's a distorted reality."
"`Perry Mason' was like the `Ozzie & Harriet' of law. It was an ideal view," said Carol Moog, a psychologist and president of the Creative Focus ad consultancy in Bala-Cynwyd, Pa. "Well, there is nothing ideal about the Simpson case. It's a circus that appears to be contrived. It appears to be presented as entertainment. People are responding with mock horror and mock humor. And the reality that people were killed has been completely diluted. It's almost like it were a soap opera."
Soap operas seem an apt analogy, since courtroom tableaux have always been a staple of daytime dramas.
Said William Bell, senior executive producer and a writer on CBS' "The Young & the Restless": "The parallels [between the Simpson trial and soap operas] are these: It's a continuing story line. The audience is very involved with the characters. You have daily cliff-hangers. There are riveting conflicts in a potentially life and death confrontation. You've got good guys and bad guys and heroes and villains, and they have a way of dragging out the plot."
TV has finally reached the point where network executives are trying to figure out how to juggle soap operas with court coverage.
Network brass are being forced to develop contingency strategies in the event the Simpson trial goes to full gavel-to-gavel coverage when it resumes in January. Among the plans being developed by the Big 3 is the possibility of airing soap operas outside their normal time slots or running summary capsules of their soap opera story lines inside Simpson coverage.
Either way, Simpson trial pre-emptions will be a costly proposition for ABC, CBS and NBC, with estimates that they could lose as much as half their daily combined daytime ad take of $26 million for each day of live trial coverage.
But other media operators stand to profit directly from the coverage, particularly cable networks like CNN and the Courtroom Television Network, or Court TV.
CNN has already boosted its ratings estimates and rate card for Simpson coverage and is selling specific ad packages around the trial. The network is also rumored to be offering a package that includes the first commercial break following a Simpson verdict; CNN denied it's making such an offer.
As a matter of policy, Court TV doesn't sell ad packages surrounding specific trial coverage, and it routinely pre-empts advertising from some of its highest rated programming: live testimony.
Court TV CEO Steven Brill bridled at the notion of taking advantage of the Simpson trial: "This case is about two people being murdered and two children possibly losing both their parents. That's nothing to capitalize on."
Still, critics argue the channel is exploiting the legal system by pandering to sensational cases that will attract big ratings. And that in doing so, Court TV is encouraging bigger networks to overemphasize unimportant legal cases to remain competitive.
"Advertising doesn't belong in courtrooms," said Alan Dershowitz, the media-savvy criminal attorney, Harvard law professor and member of the Simpson defense team.
Mr. Dershowitz believes cameras belong in the courtroom-every courtroom and not just those of the most sensational cases. He said the coverage should come from a non-commercial station, one he dubbed J-Span, a judicial reference to Congress' C-Span.
"Other commercial stations could then borrow from it, as they do from C-Span, but the primary, core camera should come from a non-commercial station that is prepared to do gavel-to-gavel coverage. Not of the most sensational trials but of the most educational and the most typical trials," Mr. Dershowitz said. "That decision should not be made on the basis of advertising dollars."
While the legal scholars and news programmers argue the pitfalls and merits of cameras in real courtrooms, the dramatists are taking the fictional variety to extremes that are bound to blur the issue even further. And they're doing so with the help of some of the best legal minds available.
Dick Wolf, executive producer of NBC's "Law & Order," said his series has three attorneys on staff as writers.
Mr. Wolf said his show has also begun working closely with a number of prominent criminal attorneys who are serving as consultants and occasionally as guest stars. Defense attorney William Kunstler recently portrayed himself on an episode that depicted a fictionalized version of one of his real-life cases.
But in what may prove to be an even more powerful blurring with reality, "Law & Order" this month featurea a sexual harassment case that may actually create a new interpretation of the law.
In an effort to get the story line into the show's criminal court setting, the writers turned sexual harassment into a felony.
"Michael Chernuchin, who is the head of our writing staff and who is also a lawyer, came up with an argument that sexual harassment is essentially extortion, which is a felony. The case was essentially boiled down to: `If you don't sleep with me, you won't make partner in this law firm,"' Mr. Wolf said. "This is a new law that doesn't exist, but we checked with a bunch of DAs, all of whom said it was ridiculous until we read them the argument and then they said it could work. It's absolutely conceivable, and I wouldn't be surprised to see somebody use that charge."