Mom loves Marcia but I’m a Sheck Man. When Battlin’ Barry goes in for the
kill I’m off my reclining media monitoring unit and on my feet, waving my
giant foam GOJAY! evidence collection glove in the air like the rabid fan of
America’s latest arena sport that I’ve lately become. I don’t really care who
wins. I just want to see some blood — in paper containers, not plastic, Mr.
Fung.

I owe my pathology to Court TV. Before the Oklahoma bombing you could
catch O.J. on every other channel, but all those broadcasts seemed borrowed,
CNN and NBC and the rest sycophantic remoras hitching a ride on the great
cruising whale shark that is Court TV. Like Court TV they all had
magic-haired anchors talking tactics with a succession of Harvard Law
sleazebags, but you got the sense that the other networks were just
play-acting, and often they overcompensated with lofty ethical deliberations
about the American legal system. As if it might be lost on us “eyeballs” that
it’s anything but a very expensive joke.

Court TV, on the other hand, rarely flirts with the obvious, or rams
institutional critiques down the viewer’s throats. Its conceit mostly relies
on the lone camera bolted to the wall above the jury box, our peephole.
Through it we spy on the orgy of wealth, power and obfuscation in the next
room, and we can cluck our tongues or grab our crotches as we see fit, and we
can (supposedly) judge for ourselves. Certainly we try.

Which seems to be the point, according to Wired’s recent felationary profile
of Court TV boss Steven Brill, a legal journalist/entrepreneur and founder of
the magazine The American Lawyer. The genesis of the network, which has yet
to turn a profit since airing in 1991 but flourishes under Time Warner
patronage, came when Brill heard a trial snippet on the radio. “That’s when
it hit me,” Brill says in Wired. “If people want to learn about the law, why
not just show it to them.”



Juiceheads have come to the courthouse admittedly late (“I hung it up after
the Menendez trial” is a common, cable-weary refrain) but Court TV is not
punk rock, and for once hopping on the bandwagon is understandable. After
all, this is not the commercialization of disaffected youth expression, and
there is no hipster cutoff date. The pathfinding consumers of Steven Brill’s
vision were affluent, older and home for the afternoon, more than willing to
stare at the gray dot hovering over the face of acquitted rapist William
Kennedy Smith’s accuser until cocktail hour.

Court TV has beefed up its evening programming since those years of
minimalist glory with shows like Prime Time Justice and The System, which
follows a case from the bust through the subsequent judicial stages and
continually drives home the fact that if you have to ask how much justice
costs you can’t afford it. No news yet on other shows in development (Death
Row Cholesterol Watch perhaps?).

But the beauty of Court TV can be summed up in one word: meanwhile. While
all too often the experts on the other channels are left to thumbwrestle when
the O.J. trial slows to the clip of a meandering Bronco chase or screeches to
an outright halt (“juror furor”, sidebar limbo), Court TV cuts to the action.

Suddenly we’re inside a Montana courtroom that looks uncannily like a ski
lodge, where an animal rights activist who disrupted the lawful assassination
of a bison pits his right to free speech against a state code prohibiting any
attempt to “dissuade” a hunter from “taking an animal.” Meanwhile, in
Florida, the skate rat roommate of a young rapist/killer/necrophilliac
recounts the tasteless jokes they cracked the morning after the murder.
Meanwhile, Susan Smith is arraigned, Colin Ferguson fires legal lasers from
his spaceship, Charles Manson laughs his ass off at the parole board one more
time.

Simpson, Bobbit and Menendez are main courses, but we must snack along the
way. Besides, the table’s set for everyone.

Court TV’s mainly nuts and dolts approach, self-sustaining except for the
occasional Hard Copy tape leak any complex organism requires for survival in
this environment, provides for enough varied reading practices to make your
average cultural studies professor slather. The O.J. trial for some is a
year-long Superbowl, for others the greatest mini-series ever told, and for
aspiring barristers it’s night school. Court TV can also funnel you safely
into cyberspace. A few minutes in ItoWorld supplies the chatroom pick-up
artist with a lame but ready opener, and all-night debaters hash out the
day’s proceedings on Brill’s own Court TV Law Center, where postings for
legal help are also available. Finally, Court TV understands the urgency of
the trial freak, cousin to the sports junkie. Hence 1-800-VERDICT.

C-Span fetishists appreciate Court TV’s static barebones delivery,
(“unmediated”, the “real thing”), but of course it’s mediated, and Court TV
has its personalities, like anchor Fred Graham, an amiable warhorse, who may
say “double murder” but clearly means double bogey, or Dan Abrams, the eager
young preppie standing outside the courtroom like it’s a barricaded embassy
and the bullets are about to fly. And then there’s Ricki (“that’s a very good
question”) Kleinman, who hosts the daily call-in show and handles all queries
with considerable aplomb, though you can’t help wish they’d let more psychos
and pedants through for the sake of, well, what’s the word we’re looking for?
Juditainment? I hope not.

The real stars, of course, are inside the courtroom. O.J. lawyer Johnny
Cochran, the true velvet fog, is an early Oscar favorite, as is Tom Moore,
whose Royal Shakespeare Company audition transfixed viewers but failed
to win the jury in the Libby Zion trial. But in the age of televised justice
everybody’s got an eye to the camera. Even the jurors get memorable cameos,
as Jeanette Harris ably proved. We’ve seen defendants weep, witnesses scream,
heck, we saw O.J. practically naked, all of it beamed to the boxes of at last
count sixteen million subscribers.

Print journalists and sketch artists were never such a distraction. This is
why the idea of Court TV as a one-way window into the truth of our legal
system is somewhat specious. It resembles stories of Western ethnographers
camping out in pre-industrial societies to record objective data on village
life, never suspecting the effect their intrusive presence might have on
social patterns.

But people tend to look at all this like a new phenomenon, like there was no
comparable coverage of past trials of the century, like the Lindbergh and
Scopes trials weren’t subject to quick spin and heavy churn. Albeit there was
no picture, and no interactive immediacy a la viewer polls and on-line
chatter, but people have always barked from the cheap seats, and I’m sure
Clarence Darrow read his clippings. The difference is simply that now the
opportunities are greater than ever for television addicts (Are you an
addict? Do you watch more than three hours a week? Do you ever watch
television alone?) to do what they do best: sit back and watch the spectacle
unfold, occasionally rising to belch and stick in their two cents. Call it
the electronic barstool.

You can find me there, in my Sheck Mania t-shirt, taking bets.


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