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Will Viewers Be Shouting: I Want My Court Tv?


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WILL VIEWERS BE SHOUTING: I WANT MY COURT TV?

Anyone but Steven Brill would have been rattled. On June 1, just one month before he planned to launch a 24-hour cable network offering live coverage of prominent trials, legislators in New York killed a law opening state courtrooms to television cameras. If the law isn't reinstated, Brill's Courtroom Television Network would have to do without such potboilers as the trials of convicted child abuser Joel Steinberg and reputed mob boss John Gotti.

Time to call 911? "It's just a hiccup," says Brill, with an impatient wave of his trademark, an unlit Macanudo cigar.

HEADSTRONG. The 40-year-old president of The American Lawyer magazine predicts that legislators will restore the law before Court TV starts airing on July 1. To prod them along, Brill has hired powerful lobbyist Sid Davidoff. And even if Davidoff fails, Brill says he can do without the state that always seems fixated by one courtroom melodrama or another: "There are dozens of good trials every week. Our problem is deciding which ones to pick."

Such braggadocio has marked Steve Brill's career since he graduated from Yale Law School in 1976. Two years later, Brill founded The American Lawyer, the first hard-hitting magazine about the legal profession. Lawyers scoffed. But the magazine was a success, and Brill has been bucking the odds ever since. He used his award-winning American Lawyer as a platform to assemble a mini-empire of 10 legal publications. In 1989, Time Warner bought his company, American Lawyer Media L. P., for $30 million, though Brill still runs it as if it were his personal fief.

With Court TV, the headstrong Brill is taking his biggest gamble yet. "We think we're going to do the most dramatic television shown anywhere," he declares. Brill thinks he can get a mass audience hooked on the legal tribulations of celebrities such as William Kennedy Smith or just plain folks. As usual, he faces skeptics: "Most trials, unlike the sound bites in L. A. Law, are desultory," says Stanley Arkin, a partner at the New York firm Chadbourne & Parke.

Brill's solution is to make Court TV a cross between C-Span and MTV. The network will offer live coverage but will hopscotch among several trials to skip the dull parts (table). Brill has hired reporters and lawyers to offer a sort of play-by-play on the action. And the network is anchored in New York by Fred Graham, former CBS News Supreme Court correspondent, who sets the pace the way sportscaster Jim McKay did at the Olympic Games. Court TV also sports slick sets and graphics.

JAMMED. The polished look is the contribution of Robert W. Pittman, the programmer who helped to start MTV. Pittman now heads Time Warner Enterprises, which handles new ventures. The other backers are NBC Inc. and Cablevision Systems Corp., which had planned a rival network but folded it into Brill's last November rather than spark a crippling rivalry. Now, Brill is applying the same wiles to cable giant Tele-Communications Inc., which he says may also become a backer. TCI declines to comment.

There was never any doubt who would run the combined operation. Brill's forceful personality won over Tom Rogers, the president of NBC Cable, who says he regularly savors Brill's colorful and tough American Lawyer articles. Such high-powered support is crucial because starting a new cable network these days is a Herculean task. Cable channels are already jammed to capacity, and the recession has made advertisers leery of unknown upstarts. Other new cable ventures have bogged down. "It's a terrible time to introduce a cable service," says Cablevision CEO Charles Dolan.

Still, Dolan says Court TV stands a fair chance of succeeding because it will be distributed to a portion of the subscribers on three big cable networks: his own, Time Warner, and TCI. To survive, the network must win 10 million subscribers within its first year, according to cable analyst Larry Gerbrandt of Paul Kagan Associates. Since the merger with its rival, Gerbrandt has been bullish about Court TV's prospects: "Court TV will be to legal coverage what CNN was to the Persian Gulf war."

Perhaps. But cable networks get only 40% of their revenue from subscribers. The other 60% comes from advertisers, and it's unclear how many companies will want to place ads between pictures of tough lawyers and weeping defendants. Brill claims Court TV will have a serial quality that will capture daytime soap-opera viewers and the companies that sell to them. So far, though, Court TV hasn't signed up any advertisers.

SOUR GRAPES? Brill's backers are expected to sink $37 million into the network in its first three years before it breaks even. But Brill says Court TV will generate a profit of $25 million in the fourth year. Such optimism has some of his print rivals snickering. They say Brill sometimes exaggerates numbers such as the circulation revenue of his publications. Brill dismisses those assertions as sour grapes and says American Lawyer Media will make a profit of almost $2.5 million in 1991 -- a 24% jump over 1990.

Some of his publications, such as Texas Lawyer and Manhattan Lawyer, are still losing money. But Brill says The American Lawyer, which has had its ups and downs in circulation, has eluded the ad recession because it has generated extra revenue from legal notices about bankruptcies and other filings.

The financial security Brill has won from Time Warner lets him focus his outsize energies on opening more courtrooms to his cameras. Forty-four states now allow them, and the federal government will let cameras into civil trials on a test basis this summer. But federal criminal trials are still off-limits. Still, Brill is confident he can make the law fascinating to middlebrow viewers. Famous faces and lurid homicides will be the easy part. To fill out the rest of his schedule, he must also convince viewers that a lawsuit challenging the nutritional claims of oatmeal can make for a good night in front of the tube.Mark Landler in New York


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