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And the Verdict Is . . . : As the Menendezes Await Word, Court TV Makes a Case for Itself

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

As a reporter for the Court TV cable network, Terry Moran has covered the Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas hearings, the $105-million jury award against General Motors over the death of a young man in a GM truck crash and several other high-profile legal dramas. But it is the murder trial of Erik and Lyle Menendez--on trial for shotgunning their parents to death--that has turned Moran into a TV celebrity.

“This is the first time since I’ve been at Court TV that I’ve been recognized and stopped on the street,” said Moran, who has been covering the Menendez trial in Van Nuys for five months. “People are totally into the case, and they want to talk about it. A couple of people have told me they’re so addicted to watching it that they’ve asked their therapists about it.”

One therapist told a patient that if viewers are believing the brothers’ defense of child abuse and molestation, the trial is about a secret, and everyone has a secret soul that he fears would not be accepted. Moran’s own theory is more journalistic: “This is a mythic story about sons killing parents. It has Beverly Hills, sex-abuse charges and shotguns. And it has a very serious question about how much claims about home life can mitigate against individual responsibility.”

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Whatever the reasons, the trials of Erik and Lyle Menendez have captivated TV viewers, particularly in the Los Angeles area. The lengthy, sensational case has provided both a media buzz and a business boom to New York-based Court TV, a 2-year-old cable network that has provided live coverage and “color” commentary on trials from the William Kennedy Smith rape case to the legal proceedings in the hostile takeover of Paramount Communications. Comedians from comedy clubs to late-night TV shows have made the brothers’ trial a staple of their acts. Holly Hunter recently told Jay Leno on “The Tonight Show” that she was “addicted” to watching the network’s coverage of the trial, which Hunter described as having moments of real-life boredom and brilliance, like “ ‘Hard Copy’ on the outside, and C-SPAN on the inside.”

“The trial has a cult aura in Los Angeles,” said Merrill Brown, senior vice president for Court TV. “There has been nothing like it for us in terms of interest (in the trial and in Court TV) from news organizations based in L.A. and New York--and in terms of the passions of viewers about the case.” Court TV has been getting about 1,000 calls a week (from all over the country but particularly from California) from viewers about the case.

Court TV executives are loathe to say they have profited financially from the Menendez trial. But, along with the network’s coverage of the Reginald O. Denny trial, Court TV’s coverage of the Menendez case has enabled the channel to gain a berth in the important Los Angeles cable market, where the network had almost no carriage before.

Century Southwest Cable, which serves some 200,000 subscribers on L.A.’s Westside, Crown Cable in Pasadena and other Los Angeles-area cable systems have carried Court TV’s coverage of both the Denny and Menendez trials. Century began to carry Court TV in August as a separate network available to most of its subscribers, and Court TV is in discussions with other Los Angeles-area systems to be carried on a permanent basis.

“We’ve clearly gained subscribers with the Menendez trial,” said Bob Rose, the vice president in charge of affiliate relations for Court TV. Rose estimates that Court TV has added an additional 500,000 subscribers in the Los Angeles area since the start of the Menendez trial. The network added an additional 3 million subscribers nationwide in September and is now available to 14.1 million cable-TV households. Rose said that it is impossible to measure an exact cause-and-effect between the Menendez trial and cable systems agreeing to carry the network, but he said, “We obviously talk about trials like Menendez in our discussions with cable operators, and there’s no question that the publicity about the trial will generate huge business for us in the future.”

The trial also has helped the careers of defense attorney Leslie Abramson, who has been a familiar presence on television, and anchor-producer Cynthia McFadden, who has just been hired away from Court TV by ABC News.

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Court TV executives said that as part of their ongoing discussions with Century and other Los Angeles systems, they approached the Los Angeles cable operators this spring about carrying the Denny trial, offering to waive charges to the cable system as a public service to viewers.

“Our discussions were almost entirely about the Denny trial as a public-interest trial, although Menendez was a talking point,” said Court TV’s Brown. “We were leery of the length of the Menendez trial--we didn’t think viewers would stay interested that long--and the brothers’ surprising defense (admitting that they had killed their parents but saying they did so after a life of family violence and abuse) was not known at the time.”

Court TV alternated between the two trials at first, but the Menendez trial eventually surpassed Denny both in length and viewer interest. In addition to the coverage on Court TV, viewers who are Menendez-deprived on their cable systems have been watching on “Court TV: Inside America’s Courts,” a weekly syndicated recap of the network’s high-profile cases. (It airs Saturdays at 6 p.m. on Channel 2.)

Court TV (in which NBC has some ownership) recently did a segment on the case with reporters on “Dateline NBC,” and the network also sold some footage to ABC News for its recent special on the case.

Court TV provides the “pool” TV camera for the coverage in the courtroom to news organizations, but if news organizations come along after the fact and want videotape afterward, they pay Court TV for the footage. Steven Brill, the founder of American Lawyer magazine who is the chief executive officer of Court TV, said in an interview that, while he would sell footage of the case to ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox, he will not sell to “Hard Copy” and “Inside Edition” because he considers them tabloid TV.

It is difficult to measure the impact of the Menendez trial on Court TV because the network only recently began to be measured in the national Nielsen ratings. But in October, with Menendez coverage taking up about half the airtime, Court TV measured a 0.6 rating during the daytime, placing it near the top of the list among better-known basic cable networks during the daytime hours. Cumulatively, the audience over five months has provided a large, loyal audience for Court TV.

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Court TV has won praise from TV critics and legal experts for its straightforward coverage of trials from the Charles Keating fraud case to the Crown Heights murder in New York. Brill points out that the ratings for the Menendez trial were lower than the ratings for the Denny verdict--or the verdict in the recent Detroit trial of policemen accused of beating a suspect to death.

“This is not the murder channel,” Brill said, “although we could put murder trials on every day if we wanted to. It is in our business interest to project ourselves as a serious, public-service channel that covers many kinds of trials. That’s the kind of channel I want to put on, and, happily, our ratings show that there’s not a huge difference between Menendez and the Gregory K ‘divorce’ case (the boy who asked to “divorce” his natural parents) or other trials that we cover.”

Still, in terms of cumulative audience over five months, the Menendez trial has boosted both the ratings and the profile of the network.

“The William Kennedy Smith trial was high profile, but it lasted only 10 days,” noted Fred Graham, the former CBS News legal correspondent who is the chief anchor for Court TV. “What’s remarkable about the Menendez trial is that people have watched it for months--and they’re very polarized in their opinions, with a large, vocal group of viewers saying that they themselves were victims of child abuse and believe the Menendez brothers’ defense.”

When the Menendez trial reaches a conclusion (verdicts could come this week), what will Court TV do for a follow-up? Terry Moran said he’d like to cover the case of Dr. Jack Kervorkian if he is tried for assisting in suicides--or the trial in Florida of a man who killed a doctor who performs abortions.

But the sales people at Court TV have another upcoming high-profile trial in mind. “We market the whole concept of Court TV, but I think the Bobbitt trial is going to be unbelievably interesting,” said Bob Rose, referring to the forthcoming trial involving a woman who cut off her husband’s penis after, she claims, he raped her.

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