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Verdict is In on Cable's 'Court TV'


Fifteen years ago this coming Monday, on July 1, 1991, Court TV debuted and began delivering unprecedented civics lessons to the nation. The cable-television network was the brainchild of Steven Brill, who was publishing a legal magazine. At the time, almost every American had seen trials as dramatized by Hollywood. But only one in ten had ever seen a real trial.

Mr. Brill thought people would be fascinated to witness the often-creaky wheels of justice in motion. Fifteen years later, NINE in ten Americans have watched actual trials and other legal proceedings, thanks largely to Court TV.

The infant network caught a break, and an instant audience, when its cameras were allowed into the rape trial of U.S. Senator Ted Kennedy's nephew. William Kennedy Smith was ultimately acquitted. This was soon followed by the sanity hearing of a Wisconsin man who had killed, dismembered, and eaten the flesh of 17 men.

Court TV made its biggest splash with what became the most-watched legal proceeding in history -- "gavel-to-gavel" coverage of the 1995 murder trial of athlete and actor O.J. Simpson.

Yet lawyer and veteran Court TV journalist Fred Graham tells VOA that the network's ratings actually nosedived after Mr. Simpson was found "not guilty" in the death of his wife and her friend. Some outraged viewers blamed the presence of Court TV cameras for lawyers' posturing, for the racially charged questioning of witnesses, and for the unexpected verdict.

But the network -- and the notion that cameras can inconspicuously cover justice in action -- recovered in a big way. In 15 years, Court TV has now televised more than 900 trials. And two-thirds of U.S. states now permit cameras in their courtrooms.

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