Will TV shows set in real courtrooms have appeal?

June 21, 1991|By Knight-Ridder News Service

From "Perry Mason" to "L.A. Law," courtroom drama has thrived on television. The airwaves have made us witnesses to "People's Court," "Divorce Court," "Superior Court" and "Traffic Court," not to mention "Night Court."

Now, capitalizing on laws in most states that allow cameras in courtrooms, television is about to present Real Court -- real crimes, real witnesses, real verdicts.

All rise.

Tonight at 8 on Channel 11, CBS News presents the first of eight episodes of "The Verdict," a half-hour series that each week follows a trial from start to finish. Justice junkies who want more will get it next month with the arrival of CourtTV, a 24-hour-a-day cable channel that promises to show all court cases all the time. With CNN and local TV news also presenting trial coverage, the Nielsen jury is out on how many lawyers, judges and defendants the public wants to watch.

The genre, though, is clearly time-tested.

"Trials have been a staple of fiction television for many, many years," says Andrew Heyward, the CBS executive in charge of "Verdict."

"You've got a conflict with a built-in resolution. Unlike real life, where things often end up murky, or never end at all, you get a story with a beginning, a middle and a clear-cut resolution. It's very satisfying."

Merrill Brown, a programming executive with CourtTV, says: "This is going to be very dramatic television. You never know what's going to happen in the courtroom."

These new programs are part of a broader trend toward so-called reality television, which has transformed popular TV genres -- cop shows, detective shows or doctor shows -- into such reality versions as "Cops," "Top Cops" or "Rescue 911."

These new efforts do the same with the courts. Lawyer shows have already been through several forms, ranging from all-fiction ("Perry Mason") to made-for-TV ("People's Court," where real clients bring claims before a real-judge-turned-TV-judge) to somewhere in between ("Divorce Court," in which real cases are re-enacted).

All this confusion over what's real and what's not has led CBS News to begin each episode of "Verdict" with a portentous announcement: "There are no actors, no scripts, no re-enactments. Every second is real."

While "Verdict" and CourtTV both rest on the premise that viewers want to watch real trials, they differ in their approaches.

"Verdict" is a slick, highly produced show, not dissimilar in style to CBS' "48 Hours." It's the brainchild of producers Heyward and Al Briganti, who produce "48 Hours" and have adapted that show's fast-paced, slice-of-life style to "Verdict." The

ideal episode requires a state with full access to the courtroom, participants who are willing to be interviewed and "a case that combines human interest, if possible, with some larger theme," Mr. Heyward says. Count on seeing more murders than any other crime.

The goal, clearly, is emotion. The means come close to the tabloid approach. In tonight's premiere, about a con man accused of murder, reporter Richard Schlesinger says of the victim: "Her watch was still ticking around her wrist bone, but the rest of her remains had been picked clean by animals."

But "Verdict" speaks to the mind as well as the heart. The episodes screened for TV critics offered insight into legal strategy. And, unlike tabloid shows, "Verdict" is crafted to expose viewers to both sides of the court case. The idea is to invite viewers to guess the verdict before it is revealed in the final moments. The result is compelling television.

To maintain suspense, Mr. Heyward says "Verdict" will avoid the most highly publicized trials. But CourtTV will seek out high-profile cases. It is already gearing up to cover the William Kennedy Smith rape case in Palm Beach and the Los Angeles police brutality trial growing out of the much-seen videotape.

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