Court TV is Dead, Long Live Court TV!

By Jeffrey Evan Gold

“Court TV” as it had become “In Session” on TruTV died March 1, leaving only a shell of itself as a two hour highlight show. But a funny thing happened on the way to that death, the murder case of a sex-enthused, petite, ninja named Jodi Arias.

I started the coverage of that trial for HLN with Mike Galanos. We started just with her testimony. First, we were doing just two days, then three, then four, and then it just didn’t stop. We did it live, but the hard break commercials caused an uproar and the “pause button” was instituted. Then the trial would last all day and night and every HLN show covered “as if” live. A non stop HLN and Jodi Arias marriage of convenience.

The ratings were thru the roof and HLN went from #4 to #2 in cable news for the trial. Lesson learned. New shows like “After Dark” were added to the now HLN all legal all the time lineup, and many of In Session’s team were now HLN staples.

After Arias, ratings slipped back, but Zimmerman boosted them again proving legal coverages worth to HLN. In fact CNN, HLNs big sister (remember when HLN was CNN Headline news?) got into act big time. Not to be out done, CNN really pushed on live Zimmerman coverage. No pause button for CNN, which covered the trial as a live news event. And many viewers switched off HLNs pause button to CNN to watch live as it happened.

The die was cast. Legal is in at Turner (which owns CNN, HLN, and TruTV.) But now what? There are only so many really national media cases, and they are not all televised … and cameras in court is what makes court TV. Not every case is going to get Arias ratings. That case had sex and lots of it. Sort of a Days of Our Lives for some.

Big cases like Whitey Bulgar in Boston, with 19 murders, gets very little reaction from HLN and the Arias crowd. It’s a mob case of wise guys with the center being a 83 yr old defendant. The Ft Hood killer, Maj. Hassan slaughtered 13, the worst murder on a US military base ever.

But what has? Casey Anthony was acquitted of killing her toddler. Jodi Arias killed her ex boyfriend. George Zimmerman killed a 17 yr old boy. Andrea Sneiderman is alleged to have lied about her affair to cover a murder of her husband. And Joshua Young was acquitted yesterday of killing his step brother. These are the court days of our media lives. Not that they are trivial, murder never is. But as we pick and choose cases to highlight, we must be mindful that news coverage can shape minds.

As a legal analyst of course I think court coverage is great. I’m just wondering where we go with it if we start looking at it as only entertainment. Super reality TV for sure, but we should be careful to keep it as news not just entertainment. We need to keep perspective that our justice system has a real purpose and that we chance devaluing it if we make it into a reality soap opera.

Jodi Arias is a bad bad girl, but the hue and cry over a jury that could not agree to kill her was out of line with who gets death usually, mass murderers, cop killers, kid killers, killers with long records. Most ex girlfriends just don’t. Zimmerman was a cop wannabe following a back kid, who beat him up and got killed in process. But would the case have been the same if the victim was a 40 year old, instead of a kid?

There are many more cases that are not about boyfriends, sex, kids, toddlers, etc. but do they appeal to the daytime viewer? Are we only going to see cases that evoke the viscera of daytime viewers who are frankly mostly women.

As entertainment, we give them want they want. But as citizens we have wonder whether we start skewing our legal system because of it. Do we kill Jodi Arias because her case has been so hyped? Do we prosecute Zimmerman for a civil rights violation because the media hype over case stirred mass protests over the verdict?

And why really are we even watching Andrea Sneiderman live when her murder charges were dropped and all that’s left is her lying about affairs, while mass murderers like Bulger and Hassan are mere 30 sec news updates?

I have grown up in courts. It’s my world. Our court system with all its faults is the best in the world. It is one of our defining aspects as Americans. I cherish it in fact. But It cannot become either a blood sport or a soap opera. I am a 100% supporter of cameras in court and welcome more news coverage.

Court TV is dead, long live court TV! As long as we keep perspective. Lady Justice wears a blindfold so that prejudice will not intrude, including about the ratings.