I Confess, Im Not Awed

No one ever accused Courtroom Television Network's high-charged, lawyer-turned-TV honcho Henry Schleiff of falling off a turnip truck.

And Schleiff, ever the master stuntsman, outdid even himself last week. In the middle of the intense hype that surrounded the final episode of CBS' Survivor, his people had leaked to The New York Times that come Sept. 10, Court TV would debut Confessions-and won prominent placement in Monday's edition.

For Confessions is yet another bold, evolutionary step in the growing genre of reality television. And it's becoming clearer by the day that every broadcast and cable network wants a piece of the major hoopla and revenue that Survivor generated for CBS.

Believe me, the media feeding frenzy for Court TV's new gamble has just begun in these final dog days of summer. Shortly after the news appeared in the Times, Cable News Network interviewed Schleiff. He took some heat about trying to capitalize on the ever-spreading reality-TV craze.

Talk about stark reality. The rat-eating castaways on Survivor look tame or inane when compared to Confessions' real-life murderers, rapists and other criminals whose taped confessions are the meat of this new series that will air at 10 p.m. on Sundays.

Confessions begins with a warning about how this material contains language and subject matter that some people might find objectionable. It should carry a warning "to lock your doors and windows before you fall asleep."

All of the cases involving the confessors in this Court TV series have been adjudicated, so their admissions are public record and available to all.

But since the story of Confessions' debut broke last week, both the legal community and the press are divided on whether this show is just exploiting the reality-TV trend, or is truly educational, as Schleiff and those who side with him will argue.

I can't say what I saw was in any way educational, except to reinforce the old chestnut that crime doesn't pay. True, as Schleiff will contend, I saw a part of the American justice system to which I would not normally be privy. So I was curious to see the Confessions tape.

However, I have to say I didn't learn anything at all about the system from watching this one segment of three people 'fessing up. It was real, true, but it had no context.

The segment I saw featured three no-goodniks, one after the other, giving their confessions in the interrogation room. After their often-tortuous testimony, edited but still full of profanities, a screen of type comes on telling the viewer that so and so was convicted and sentenced to so many years in jail, or that the defendant was found to be psychologically unfit for trial.

The show looked deliberately raw and edgy, with no narrator putting its contents into context.

On the other hand, I would hardly call Confessions overly exploitative. In fact, there is an educational aspect to it, if you bother to visit its Web site to see what legal scholars have to say about the criminal-justice system. Online visitors to the site can also post their comments. That's not exploitative, that's helpful.

And it isn't as though Court TV is offering up $1 million to viewers or Web-site visitors to guess the outcome of each defendant's confession. This is no P.T. Barnum event.

That's one of the reasons Confessions won't become the next Survivor. Each week it will feature different felons, unlike the 13 weeks of watching Richard and Kelly square off to become the final contestant. So the parade of confessions will quickly become very forgettable.

But Confessions doesn't need to be a Survivor. I think Schleiff would be happy if it does for Court TV what shows like South Park did for Comedy Central: develop into a signature series or appointment TV.