New York -- Now that Courtroom Television Network's
ownership has been resolved, several other tough issues still need to be tackled --
namely: how the legal channel will be managed, and what steps its owners will take to
recharge its programming and ratings.
Court TV's restructured owner partnership -- a 50-50
venture between Time Warner Inc. and Liberty Media Group -- pledged last week that the
network will continue to offer trial coverage and other legal and court-related
programming. But the details of how that programming will be tweaked remain to be seen.
Last Thursday, Time Warner president Richard Parsons met
with about 30 key Court TV officials, and he said a game plan for the network's future
should be ready in three to four weeks. In the meantime, Court TV's more than 200
employees still face many uncertainties, including the reportedly still open issue of
whether Time Warner unit Turner Broadcasting System Inc. will operate the network.
While cable operators have lauded Court TV for its
usefulness as a public-affairs and community-relations tool, they would like to see the
network's programming reworked and reinvigorated in order to boost its perennial 0.1
Nielsen Media Research primetime rating and to make it destination viewing.
"The concept of the network is a good one, but it's
dependent on having an interesting trial to cover," said Linda Stuchell, vice
president of programming at Harron Communications Corp. "My best hope is that they
come up with original programming that makes it a want-to-go venue."
Last week, as expected, Time Warner and Liberty reached an
agreement to pay a reported $70 million for NBC's one-third stake in the legal network.
Court TV will be acquired by Time Warner and Liberty in two stages, and NBC will have the
rights to acquire equity in the venture in the future.
Terms of the agreement weren't disclosed, but it will put
to an end the limbo that Court TV has been in for the past year, ever since Time Warner
vice chairman Ted Turner blocked founder Steve Brill from buying it for roughly $450
Some Court TV officials expressed delight that Time Warner
and Liberty succeeded in acquiring the network, rather than Discovery Communications Inc.
DCI had planned to drop its format and to use its analog shelf space for either its new
Discovery Health network or for The Travel Channel, but operators balked at the proposed
format change. Bidder Tom Rogers, president of NBC Cable, along with investment group
Evercore Partners, also lost out with his $300 million bid for Court TV.
At this point, according to Parsons, it's not yet a
foregone conclusion that Court TV will be managed by TBS Inc., although that's what Time
Warner and Liberty want, a source said.
U S West Media Group, parent of MSO MediaOne, owns 25
percent of Time Warner Entertainment -- the entity that Court TV falls under at Time
Warner -- and it may not sign off on TBS running Court TV, according to the source.
TBS chairman Terry McGuirk is in charge of evaluating what
should be done with Court TV, and his people will be at the network's headquarters in New
York this week. It must also be decided if Court TV will move to Atlanta from New York,
and if the legal channel should remain a stand-alone operation or be integrated into TBS
Inc. The lease on Court TV's Manhattan headquarters spans another year, and there may not
be room in Atlanta for its operations.
As for programming plans for the 34 million-subscriber
network, several MSO officials suggested that Court TV should augment its live trial
coverage by becoming a consumer resource on legal matters, from information on divorces to
information on selling houses.
"The law affects everybody in some way," Stuchell
said. "Society is litigious. Court TV should do original programming that's a little
more applicable to all of us. It could provide legal tips and tie that into a Web site, or
create an on-air legal confidante."
Phil Laxar, senior vice president of programming at Jones
Intercable Inc., agreed with Stuchell that Court TV should serve an educational function
on legal issues.
"Court TV needs to remain news-documentary and
nonfiction-oriented," Laxar said. "But it doesn't have to be purely trial-based.
It could offer more consumer education, like the network newsmagazine shows do, but in a
little less-sensational manner. They show you how to protect yourself from fraud in an
interesting and compelling manner."
But a number of operators were opposed to Court TV airing
off-network legal-oriented dramas.
"I'd hate to see them just repackage shows," one
MSO official said.
That same executive added that Court TV's current
"public-relations value is nice, [but] I can't afford just that for an analog
service. I get that with C-SPAN."
A year ago, Court TV's management began to institute a plan
to broaden the network's programming to legal issues beyond trials and beyond cases like
O.J. Simpson, which only temporarily spike ratings. For example, Court TV looked to create
a primetime sports-law show, and it even tried to recruit MSNBC's Keith Olbermann (then at
ESPN) as its host. But those initiatives moved to the back burner when Court TV's partners
began bickering over its future and withholding funding.
"Hopefully, with stabilized ownership, they will be
able to make the financial and creative investment to make it [Court TV] work," Laxar
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