Superstar Henry Schleiff: Court TV 'personality' winning over viewers

By Published on .

Court TV has achieved new heights and recently celebrated its stature by mailing out 5-inch glossy scarlet stilettos-with a piece of wrapped Wrigley's Doublemint gum affixed to the bottom-as part of its invitation to the upfront selling season presentation.

"She was no ordinary gumshoe," the invitation declares.

And the basic cable network, a service of Time Warner Entertainment and Liberty Media, is extraordinarily red hot-with 15 million new subscribers in the last 12 months-a 37% increase.

Court TV Chairman-CEO Henry Schleiff has stepped up ratings in all dayparts, including prime time, which has climbed 50% since last February to a Nielsen 0.7 share. He's taken Court TV's image from staid to sexy, and turned on viewers, advertisers and cable operators in the process. So what's his marketing secret? As one analyst put it, "It's the programming, stupid!"


When Mr. Schleiff came on board in late 1998, Court TV was running with just a 0.1 to 0.2 Nielsen share. To rehabilitate ratings and attract new viewers, he introduced a prime-time lineup that featured a mix of off-network series such as "Homicide: Life on the Street," and crime-and-justice-related original dramas, documentaries and specials.

He launched Court TV's first consumer marketing campaign "Judgment Days & Sleepless Nights" via the Abelson Co., New York. It included outdoor buys in major TV markets and print buys. Hampel/Stefanides, New York, now handles Court TV's advertising.

He created buzz and strengthened daytime programming by signing name talent TV journalist Catherine Crier and noted attorneys Alan Dershowitz and Anita Hill. Most recently, the network debuted "Crier Live" (Monday-Thursdays), a current events show, and "Hollywood & Crime" (Fridays), a look at law and show business. Both serve as a transition from its courtroom coverage into prime time.

The results have been impressive. Thanks to edgier shows and a programming budget that's grown to $140 million for the next two years, the network also has bettered its demographics. Viewership in the 18-to-49-year-old demographic is up 51% from a year ago, according to Court TV. Court TV also has more than doubled its advertiser list in the last year and has significantly increased its depth in categories like entertainment and pharmaceuticals.

"Everything we've tried to do is looked at through the prism of `Does this help establish our brand?' " says Mr. Schleiff.

It's a strategy that's obviously worked.

"Court TV is no longer a camera lockdown-they've really taken on a personality," says TV program analyst Kathryn Thomas, associate director of Chicago-based Starcom Entertainment, a unit of Bcom3 Gr0up's Starcom MediaVest Group. "They've worked hard to permeate pop culture with a justice perspective. When there's a movie based on real-life crime, Court TV will do a behind-the-scenes. It's a multiplatform experience. Things you're seeing in other places will pop up on Court TV."


"They've done a great job not only in programming but in clearing," said Brad Adgate, senior VP-audience research for Horizon Media, New York. "You take better programming or improved programming and increase distribution and you're bound to get a higher audience. It's a classic example of what a young cable network can do to acquire viewers."


Mr. Schleiff's goals have been to inform and entertain his audience within the broad niche of crime and justice, and to make Court TV part of mainstream culture. To that end, he's entered into a number of content-sharing deals with partners such as "CBS This Morning," ABC's "Nightline," NBC's "Dateline," ESPN and WCBS in New York.

"I think there is no other cable network that has established so many relationships with the broadcast networks," he says. "I think they see it as symbiotic relationship. We bring resources that are dedicated and significant, and we bring valuable content. That allows us to extend our brand in a non-threatening way. It's truly a win-win situation."

Mr. Schleiff has extended Court TV's brand to the virtual universe, too. In January the network acquired two successful crime-related Web sites, and Both are integrated with the network's site (, which posted 6 million page views in December, up 303% from a year ago.


The road to success hasn't been totally smooth. Last September, Court TV's reality series "Confessions," which featured criminals revealing their goriest transgressions, was met with widespread criticism, including from Advertising Age. Newsday's Marvin Kitman called it "a degrading blot on Court TV's docket."

The program received a 0.6 rating, but Mr. Schleiff canceled it after two episodes and apologized.

"We tried to show sensitivity to our audience. When you grow as fast as we have, there is the opportunity that we make a mistake. I like to believe we handled that in a classy way."

Mr. Schleiff may have dropped "Confessions," but he'll have to take similar programming risks if he wants to deliver on his promise of 65 million homes by the end of the 2001-2002 season.

Based on Court TV's performance in the last two years, media watchers and analysts like Ms. Thomas should expect nothing less.

Court TV "stood up and said, `This is what we're going to do,' and they did it well," says Ms. Thomas, praising the network's efforts in the last year. "Everyone appreciates that."

Most Popular
In this article: