COVER STORY: Court TV Details New truTV Brand

Starting Jan. 1, one of the best-known cable networks in the business is demolishing a 16-year-old brand that took hundreds of millions of dollars to build -- all in a bold bid to become even bigger. Court TV, home of Dominick Dunne, COPS and lawyer cum TV personality Star Jones, will become “truTV” in one of the biggest marketing makeovers in cable history. The swap, say its owners, is long overdue to identify the channel’s programming.

The network will abandon Court’s logo and its primetime “Seriously Entertaining” tag line in favor of a new insignia -- the word “tru” in bold (“true” didn’t test as well) attached to an encircled “TV” and the tag line, “Not Reality. Actuality.”

TruTV will keep its live trial coverage during the day in a block newly named “In Session,” but it will drop its Nielsen Media Research ratings for that daypart. In primetime, it will bolster the genre that has fueled 18 months of year-to-year ratings growth: unscripted, adrenaline-packed, male-skewing joyrides such as Beach Patrol, Hot Pursuit and Speeders.

During the third quarter, Court was up 39% year to year in total primetime viewing, from 873,000 to 1.22 million viewers. That ranked it as the 15th-most-viewed cable network for the quarter. It was up 25% in weekday daytime viewing, although daytime skewed about six years older and its audience was about one-sixth the size of primetime.

Branding in the current splintered TV environment has never been more critical, and news of Court’s rebranding has sparked debates on the merits -- and incalculable risks -- inherent in the move.

“Hundreds of millions of dollars have been invested in a very credible, very recognizable brand name, and I think you jeopardize things when you tinker with that level of investment and recognition,” said media consultant Merrill Brown, who, as senior vice president of corporate and programming development at launch, was Court’s first hired employee (he left in 1994). “The name has meaning and value to consumers and certainly stands for something, and I think to alter that is unfortunate and precarious.”

'Like Starting Over’

On the surface, the move runs counter to the opinions of experts who said such a change risks alienating loyal viewers. “It’s like starting over,” said Rudy Gaskins, CEO and executive creative director of branding-services agency Push Creative, who worked on a less extreme Court rebrand in 2000.

But in many ways, the repositioning is actually the latest chapter in the network’s ratings-driven evolution from courtroom proceedings to reality fare.

“There are risks associated with change, but there are risks associated with not changing -- the blade cuts both ways,” said Marc Juris, Court TV’s general manager. Juris and Turner Broadcasting System executives said the new positioning is a necessary change for a network whose programming has outgrown its name.

“Red Lobster is pretty much a seafood house and that works for them,” he said. “It’s pretty clear. I wouldn’t say we’re going there for steaks. This network needed a name change and if it weren’t today, it would be in three years, five years.”

The move was made easier in May 2006 when Time Warner finalized an agreement to buy the remaining 50% stake in Court TV from Liberty Media for $735 million and folded Court into its basic-cable-networks unit, Turner Broadcasting System. Adding Court broadened Turner’s existing cable portfolio, which includes general entertainment networks TNT and TBS, as well as Turner Classic Movies. Juris was one of the few top executives to survive the buyout.

The network’s main target, its executives said, is males 35-45 -- a demo it called “real engagers,” for their preference toward real-life subjects. But the shows shouldn’t be considered “reality,” they added, because they’re all based in truth, unlike the manufactured, celebrity-laced fare we’ve come to know as reality TV.

With 9 a.m.-3 p.m. devoted to legal fare, most of the primetime shows will stay on TruTV’s schedule. The renamed network will up its original programming output from 250 to 300 hours but add just a handful of new shows to start, with subjects including daredevil pilots (Sky Racers), high-stakes con artists (The Real Hustle) and racing oil prospectors (Black Gold). A multimillion-dollar consumer marketing campaign, which starts Nov. 1, will reinforce the notion that there’s “more great stuff to love,” Juris said, rather than anything being taken away.

The truth is, TruTV can’t really afford to drop the trial coverage right now -- with a programming budget of just over $200 million, pennies compared with the more than $800 million afforded to bigger networks like TNT, it’s improbable that the network could produce new fare for daytime that’s more in line with what’s on in primetime. Plus, the courtroom footage really does have a devoted fan base, executives said, so why alienate them?

No More Daytime Ratings

Turner decided to stop rating the daytime fare with Nielsen numbers -- a move that will surely draw derision from competitors. Cut out Nielsens for lower-rated daytime programming, they said, and leave only the primetime numbers, and your overall viewership looks much better when it’s only an average of the better primetime numbers. But while that might be a side benefit, it’s not the impetus for the move, Turner said.

In fact, more than 97% of Court’s daytime advertising right now is direct-response ads, which aren’t sold against ratings. This is good for Court because live trials, their subjects and subject matter are difficult to predict in advance and, therefore, tough to sell during the upfront period.

In the Beginning: Nothing But Trials

At launch in 1991, Court was a very different entity. The network was started by media titan Steven Brill, Time Warner and an NBC-Cablevision Systems partnership. The channel later transitioned to a triumverate ownership -- Time Warner, Liberty and NBC -- with a mandate to program live trial coverage during the day. Primetime was an afterthought, with taped trials and repeats.

“The notion was to make our mark by being live at important courtroom trials during the day,” said Brown, who now consults for major media companies and runs citizen journalism company While he was in charge of creating Court’s initial branding and selling it to affiliates, the loudest advocate for the name Court, he added, was the late Steve Ross, then chairman of Warner Communications.

“He said, 'This is a new concept. Just say what it is,’” Brown recalled. “And we said, 'Yeah, OK. Court TV certainly describes it. It’s not really 'law TV' and it’s not really 'justice TV.' It’s about the courts.’”

A year later, Court expanded trial coverage to nighttime, and it then saw a huge boost with its O.J. Simpson coverage in 1995. Then in 1998, it gained its biggest promoter -- Henry Schleiff, the former lawyer, producer and Studios USA executive, who took over as the network’s chairman and CEO after NBC sold its share of the network to Time Warner.

Schleiff spent almost one decade growing the network to 89 million subscribers, but in the process, he fundamentally changed the channel’s mission as it expanded to include shows related to courtroom proceedings and not just the proceedings themselves. Off-net reruns like Homicide: Life on the Street and COPS in primetime were followed by a wave of original reality shows, from the now-defunct Inside Cellblock F and Mugshots: Pros & Cons with Nancy Grace to survivors like Forensic Files.

As it stands, A&E Network -- itself a network that took heat for veering from its arts foundation to demo-dropping action reality fare -- programs higher-rated crime shows than Court.

In July 2005, Court ditched its fingerprint logo and “the investigation channel” tag line and moved to distinguish the trial coverage from nighttime fare by affording each block a separate name -- “Court TV News” in the day and “Court TV Seriously Entertaining” at night. Then in April 2006, the network gave its news block a new slogan -- “The Whole Truth.”

As time passed, the network introduced original reality shows in the spirit of COPS, which has consistently delivered some of Court’s highest ratings in primetime since the network bought cable rights to the Fox show in May 1999.

Since January 2006, Court has clustered those shows in a highly successful male-skewing programming block called “R.E.D.,” or “Real. Exciting. Dramatic.” Other cable networks have coined success with the true-story adrenaline breed of reality, including Discovery Channel’s Deadliest Catch, A&E’s Dog the Bounty Hunter and The History Channel’s summer smash Ice Road Truckers.

After Time Warner bought out the remaining stake in Court, it was six months before Schleiff left and less than one year before the company announced its plans to rebrand.

The Name Game

Although Turner said it worked with three naming companies that produced 4,500 potential names, it was Juris who came up with “tru.” Not only did it sum up what he and other Turner executives thought the network’s primetime programming was -- true stories -- it is also the last three letters of “Court” spelled backward.

Many advertisers said they’re on board with the name change -- bring in the ratings and the key demos, and call yourself whatever you want. “There are so many cable networks out there that if a name change reflects better on how people perceive you and you’re more top-of-mind, then that’s great,” said Kris Magel, senior VP and account manager for Zenith Media. “I don’t really care what they call it as much as what they’re programming, what their distribution is, who they’re reaching and how much it costs.”

Pleasing operators is more difficult but something Turner said it is accomplishing with aplomb. Operators routinely do not comment on their carriage agreements with networks, but they are notorious for bristling at change -- they want a diversified portfolio of assets and brands their consumers know and are loyal to and will therefore pay for.

“My concern isn’t so much changing the name, as will the money they’re using to tell people about it be better spent on creating original programming to make that network something I can’t afford to drop?” said the head of programming for a major distributor.

Smoothing the Waters

The task of allaying operators’ fears fell in part to Turner Entertainment Networks president Steve Koonin. The former chief marketer for Coke engineered rebrands of TNT and TBS into better-defined general-entertainment networks for drama and comedy, respectively. Koonin personally traveled to Cox Communications and other carriers, which he admits were concerned, but he assured each of them that the change was for the better.

Keeping the coverage of live courtroom proceedings during the day maintains TruTV as a unique proposition and one that doesn’t violate the network’s description of services, Koonin said. Plus, after hearing operators’ worry that it could start to look too much like the other Turner networks, TruTV will not program fare from TNT and TBS. It won’t even continue programming movies -- one of Turner’s first additions to Court after buying it -- because operators said they’re already on so many other networks.

“I keep the sales constituency and the operator constituency on my shoulders in every decision like this,” Koonin said. “This new brand has 30 hours of programming [during the day] that on a weekly basis is unique and differentiated from anything else on cable.”

Even if it takes operators, advertisers and, most important, viewers several years to fully embrace the network’s new nomenclature, that’s worth it, Turner executives said.

“This is not a revolution, it’s an evolution,” Juris said. “It’s easy to knock innovation and re-energizing, but in two years, Tru will be embraced. Right now, people think we’re the Judge Judy network -- 'Court TV’ is shouting something we’re not, and this is our opportunity to finally clear that up.”

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