Court TV is back in session and preparing for Weinstein

CEO Jonathan Katz and anchor Vinnie Politan talk about Court TV's coverage in the era of Weinstein and social media

By Melanie McFarland
Published October 29, 2019 9:00PM (UTC)
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Harvey Weinstein exits State Supreme Court, June 5, 2018 in New York City. Weinstein pleaded not guilty on two counts of rape and one count of a criminal sexual act. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

You know the saying about hindsight, yes? It was the first thing Jonathan Katz, the President and CEO of Katz Networks (now a subsidiary of Scripps), happily referenced when he brought the rebooted Court TV before reporters at the end of July. Initially launched in 1991, Court TV’s wall-to-wall coverage of major court trials made it a tabloid viewing staple in the 1990s, starting with televising the murder trial of Lyle and Erik Menendez in 1993. The People v. OJ Simpson followed in 1994, cementing the channel’s pop culture prominence for the rest of that decade.

But the ride only lasted for 15 years. When Time Warner bought out Court TV in 2006, it was renamed TruTV and transformed into an unscripted reality channel. As Katz pointed out, Court TV used to be a Top 20 network, pulling in more than 700,000 on average each day.  Today, he said, TruTV has a daily viewership average of around 150,000.


Granted, TruTV also has far more channels to compete with in 2019 than it did in 2016 — as does Court TV, revived in May of this year.

The new Court TV resembles the old one, down to the classic logo, only now it also streams 24-hour-a-day, seven-days-a-week coverage online.  On Monday, the channel’s reach expanded to stations in 19 additional markets, including New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Philadelphia – the top four media markets in the United States.

This second tier launch brings Court TV to 90 percent of the country, with 40 percent cable penetration, industry speak that translates to a broader potential audience than it had not long ago.


It’s also returning at a time when audiences are obsessed with true crime and accustomed to attaining their information about major criminal cases and trial outcomes on social media.

Netflix, Showtime, HBO, Investigation Discovery, Lifetime, and Oxygen are just a few of the thematic rivals in Court TV’s space, competition Court TV helped to create by existing in the first place. Ultimately one imagines this can only help Court TV’s odds to break through the clamor.

Publicity-wise, the channel’s visibility may have gotten more of a boost at this point had Harvey Weinstein’s rape trial kicked off in September as originally intended.The Manhattan District Attorney’s office has leveled five charges against Weinstein, including two counts of predatory sexual assault, rape in the first degree, and rape in the third degree. He has pleaded not guilty to each charge.


But those proceedings have been delayed until January 2020, giving the channel more time to contend with the fact that New York is one of seven states that do not allow cameras in the courtroom. Illinois, however, does. The trial of R. Kelly is currently slated to take place there in May 2020.

It’s not as if the United States is lacking for newsworthy courtroom proceedings. When Salon spoke with Katz and lead anchor Vinnie Politan a few months ago, each were fascinated at the prospect of covering the Amber Guyger case. Currently the channel is focused on the Wisconsin murder trial of Ezra McCandless, a 22-year-old woman accused of murdering her 24-year-old lover Alex Woodworth in March of 2018.


Though the trial itself lacks a conventional celebrity at its center, it has all the earmarks of vintage Court TV fare, including a love triangle, a defendant who previously identified as a male (a factor germane to the case), and a defense attorney seeking to paint the murder victim as a sexual sadist fascinated by cannibalism.

Politan, host of the channel’s nightly show “Closing Arguments," the sole holdover from the old Court TV, called some of the more salacious details from Monday’s testimony “Arias-esque,” referring Jodi Arias, tried for the murder of boyfriend Travis Alexander in 2013.

In case viewers don’t recall that headline-grabbing case, Court TV has it prominently spotlighted as one of its Trials on Demand feature, part of a massive media archive at the channel’s disposal.


And speaking of that trove, Court TV will mine it extensively for its first original documentary series “OJ25,” which will consist of a whopping 37 parts (!), one for each week of Simpson’s trial. But as Katz and Politan stressed in our interview, the channel’s intends to train its focus much more closely on the cultural and political issues of the present as it moves forward.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

We not are not only in an age of true crime obsession, but we also have shows like “Live PD” and other non-scripted programs that are ostensibly supposed to provide viewers with clarity and an inside view at the system of policing and justice. They are also kind of problematic for a number reasons, one being that they take a one-sided approach that does not explore the issues driving critiques of the police and the justice system, such as bias or over-policing of minorities.


Court TV plans to capitalize on transparency in the courtroom. But how much is the channel planning to explore these new discussions surrounding systemic injustice, for instance, and how that might be playing out in the court room proceedings it features?

Politan: It's part of every trial. Each trial has its own set of facts and its own issues surrounding itself. The issues in each trial can bring to light other issues that are bigger to society in general. Right? There are cases that we're tracking, the cases that we're going to be covering down the road, that will bring some of this out.

Katz: We want to focus on facts of the law. I think part of the challenge that perhaps everyone has with obvious cases… is that there's not that transparency. You may see a viral video of something that you deem unfair and then the next thing you hear is that there was a verdict –  for  example, a police officer is not convicted and not penalized, but there was someone who was killed. Consumers are left perhaps to believe that this was unfair. What Court TV will provide is that total transparency of the entire process.

Now, the consumer has to be the judge as to whether or not there was fairness and has to decide whether or not justice was served. But we can provide a window for these kinds of cases that has not existed for the general public, for the country, for 10 years.


You channel is returning to an interesting space right now just in terms of how media, particularly media focused on, has touched off a great deal discussion about “other side-ism” and false equivalency. That does not actually serve to bringing an honest framing of an issue to viewers.

CourtTV is actually in a position where, by the nature of how our court system works, there are two sides to view and there actually is a strategy that may not be completely informed by the facts o the case. That scenario is dramatized in "When They See Us" – the audience got to view the prosecution’s political motivation, and how that overrode the facts of the case.  

How much latitude do you have to point out these possible motivations in a case?  Because I think today, people have a more complex understanding of the justice system and how it actually works. Or doesn’t work.

Katz: I wish Yodit [Tewolde, the channel’s daytime anchor] was here because we were just talking about this.  The way that Yodit looks at it is, she said if only Court TV had been around back then for the Central Park Five. She wished there had been that transparency so that other people of color might've seen at that time what your rights actually were, and how you might exercise those rights. With our level of transparency, everyone can see what that process is, and it's not a mystery.


Politan: When we cover a case, when we're tracking cases around the country, the first thing we do is get our hands on the court file. And the court file reveals a lot of things: motions made by both sides, arguments that are made months, sometimes years before a case goes to trial. So we can track it and communicate to the viewer how we got to where we are now, and how it all may impact the trial itself. Sometimes it's the judge's ruling on something. But sometimes it's behavior that's being alleged by both sides. Sometimes a defense attorney, to file motions, says the prosecutor's doing something that he or she is not supposed to be doing. And that becomes part of the story.

And even during the course of the trial, we will bring up those issues. "Here's evidence that the jury isn't hearing." "Here's an argument that is made or an allegation that has been made by either side." So that absolutely something that we do and we always attempt to follow up with, whether it's pretrial or post-trial, sometimes during the trial, interviews of the players involved.

When you're talking about agendas and motivations, how exactly do you cover that without coming into this territory where someone on the other side might say that you have some sort of an agenda yourself?

Politan: That we have our own agenda in questioning someone else's agenda? I think it's something that has to be either part of the court record or part of the surrounding facts. Now, prosecutors in many jurisdictions are elected positions. There's a political part to it. I've covered cases in the past where, say this is someone who's running for reelection and may pursue a case for a particular reason. That becomes part of the backstory. And what we do is we invite people to talk about these issues.


I'm a former prosecutor. I hold prosecutors up to a higher standard and always try to explain to the viewer that the job of the prosecutor isn't to win. The job of the prosecutor is justice, which is the truth, which is fairness.

A defense attorney's role is much different. It's the zealous defense of an individual. The prosecutor has a much wider responsibility. You don't just because the case was indicted, that you have to win at whatever it is. So I think that's part of the way we cover these cases. Because sometimes, what people look at as injustice is the level of the charges. You know, maybe somebody did something but it's not to that level. And that becomes one of the issues that we discussed during the case.

Do you envision any special reports in that vein, that focus specifically on political or social issues?

Katz:  Yes. We will expand original programming in a way that not only makes sure that Vinnie is able in his prime time show to have special segments and focus on issues that are core to consumers but also be able to do it more long form. We just announced starting a documentary unit. And yes, OJ is a high profile way to kick off a long-form series. But there is so much that we can cover and will cover. We’re at only  a few months of being on the air. We'll talk again next year and you can see how we've done that at that point.

We’re teeing up for what is expected to be massive coverage of the Weinstein trial. You were talking about being there and doing as much coverage as possible. But New York doesn’t allow for cameras in the courtroom. How do you plan to be in front of your competition with new developments besides doing the regular beat reporter updates, especially if there's some sort of moment that requires breaking into programming?

Katz: In the case of the Weinstein trial, we will anchor from there. We will report from New York, we will have correspondents constantly shuffling in and out. We will have sketch artists, we will be on the street as witnesses come out and want to talk. We'll bring them to the set. There will be experts, there will be attorneys, there won't be a bit of news that comes out of that trial that you will not find.

Politan: We've done it in the past … the Jerry Sandusky trial was a great example, with some similar types of allegations in that one. And it's a matter of having great reporters, great correspondents, great producers getting the information out of the court, getting direct quotes from out of the court. Which is powerful, right? We’ll have someone that would be able to get us those most compelling moments of testimony that can swing things one way or the other. You’ve got to put a lot on the ground to get it done, but it can get done.

Social media changes things in that regard to where you can actually break things immediately from the courtroom ... where it's allowed.

Katz: Yes. But if you're a consumer and see a breaking item from another platform, where do you go to get more expanded, teased-out context of what just happened and analysis? There'll be plenty of people reporting on the trial, but no one will be able to do it in the way that we do it.

Politan: The other thing is, it's not clear yet, I don't think, what the protocol rules will be during the trial. Every judge, every jurisdiction has their own rules. Sometimes a judge allows live-tweeting. Sometimes they don't. Sometimes no one can see anything or send anything out of the courtroom. So we will have an ability to get the information however the judge deems the rules should be.

Not all the cases that Court TV is covering will be focused on famous people. How are the other cases that the channel follows going to be chosen? And is there going to be an eye towards keeping a balance so it's not necessarily focusing on one part of the country or one particular type of defendant?

Politan: There's a job description at Court TV called trial tracker. We've got a team of them and they sort of divide up the country and are following and tracking cases from the time something happens and then following all the way through, working towards whatever that potential date is. They have weekly meetings where they go through what's happening and where it's happening. There's a lot of factors that go into it.

Optimally, you want to have a case where you've got a camera in the courtroom. To not have a camera, it's got to be a case that's to the level of Weinstein and that the public is very familiar with, and there's this need to report on that case. For the cases that aren't like that, there are the camera access issues. Again, that varies state to state and works differently court to court and judge to judge.

…. The other thing, that wrinkle that you have with trials is they can go away at any moment. What I mean go away, is we've been looking forward to this trial for six months with this trial date. And then the day before the defense says, "Oh, an issue came up. All right, we'll reschedule for three months from now." We've got to be very nimble. So we have a list of cases that we're tracking all at once.

Katz: At the same time, I think it's important to also address the question head on in terms of diversity and how that factors in. When we built our company as a whole, and Court TV, it was critical that there were voices of color in scale. Part of our mandate from the beginning was that we were not going to do what other media companies did, which was that they all assume that the people who worked for them look like them and that they were talking to people who look like them.

Just give you some raw numbers: 50 percent of our company is minority, and the vast majority is African American. We were purposeful when we hired for Court TV that we had a fairly even split in that we wanted minority voices, we wanted diversity and that's what we've done.

So it's not just in front of the camera, but behind the camera as well. They are represented and their voices are at the table making the decisions, including on the journalistic side, not just on the business side, as to which cases should we look at. And the people at the table making those decisions are people that have to have 'the talk' with their kids.  So there's a difference between us being ...champions of injustice and us providing information and education with the hope that we're shining a light someplace that hasn't been shone before.

Court TV is available to stream online and on TV for select cities.

Melanie McFarland

Melanie McFarland is Salon's TV critic. Follow her on Twitter: @McTelevision

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