After four years transforming Court TV from a moribund network known mostly for endless trial coverage to a primetime player anchored in topics of crime and justice, Chairman-CEO Henry Schleiff acts like a politician chasing re-election.
He touts his record proudly. And he's identified a constituency where he needs to boost his poll numbers, so he's agitating for change.
The record? If Court TV was the rickety house Steve Brill built, Schleiff has fortified it. He's scaled back the trial coverage, jettisoned the talking-head format, including host Johnnie Cochran, and developed a prime-time lineup-with off-network runs of "NYPD Blue" and documentary-type series. It's been a formula for some success. The network, jointly owned by AOL Time Warner and Liberty Media, saw its distribution grow from 29 million when Schleiff started in '98 to 70 million, among cable's top tier. Household prime-time ratings have gone from a 0.1 to the 0.7 range. And viewer perception has improved: The net's no longer viewed as only a place to visit when a trial of the century comes along.
If that's been a revolution, Schleiff now has a less drastic evolution in mind as the annual TV upfront buying period approaches. The network is set to introduce a tagline to serve as a marketing face as well as a guiding ID for programming: "Join the investigation." Schleiff, a lawyer and ex-executive at Studios USA, and other execs believe Court TV has an opening in the cable mass as a destination for narratives about crimes and mysteries, whether fictional ("NYPD Blue") or reality-driven like the prime-time documentary-like shows "Forensic Files" and "The System." Execs believe even the trials during the day fall under that umbrella.
"Investigation is the core of what Court TV's programming is all about," Schleiff says. "It's the common denominator."
Schleiff also hopes the focus leads to more attention from the ad buying constituency. He wants the network to realize the sorts of numbers seen by three of cable's powers: Lifetime, the Discovery Channel and A&E. Nielsen Monitor-Plus figures show last year those networks brought in $1.1 billion, $677 million and $366 million, respectively, while Court TV garnered $153 million. Schleiff's stump speech: The pieces are in place-the distribution, the ratings, the programming-to propel the dollar growth.
"There is no other network of our size, ratings and value to advertisers that has been less well-regarded in terms of commensurate advertising dollars," he says.
Late last year, Exec VP-Ad Sales Gig Barton left and was replaced by Oxygen Media's Charlie Collier. A Court TV spokeswoman says Barton left to pursue other interests. Reached by phone, Barton would only say: "I was proud of the accomplishments we made over eight-and-a-half years."
Court TV has supporters in the ad community, but faces a hindrance: Its content can cause advertiser consternation, given the frequent focus on murder and foul play. "They're still going to have hurdles to get over in terms of content issues," says Optimedia's Senior VP Bob Flood.
"It's what happens before and after the crime," counters Collier. "The crime isn't the story."
Court TV execs believe they can appeal to advertisers by offering "lean forward" TV, meaning programs where viewers feel involved, thus possibly making ads resonate. According to Darren Campo, Court TV's VP-programming and planning, "It's almost like watching `Jeopardy' and answering the questions."