Steven Brill plans to bring the O.J. Simpson trial to the small screen COURTING TV

September 25, 1994|By Alice Steinbach | Alice Steinbach,Sun Staff Writer

New York -- Steven Brill, 44 years old, Yale Law School graduate, founder and editor-in-chief of the hard-hitting American Lawyer magazine, mini-mogul of a growing legal-news empire, host of a profitable series of legal management seminars and the man who invented Court TV, wants to make one thing perfectly clear: He is not, repeat not, a lawyer.

"I am very sensitive to this issue," Mr. Brill says. "In fact, every time I get introduced as a speaker I always say, 'I am not a lawyer.' This is not because I'm such a straight-arrow guy. It's because I once wrote a vicious piece about [lawyer and author] Mark Lane, who then went out and staged a press conference to announce a law suit against me, saying, 'This guy has never passed the bar exam.'"

Steve Brill pauses for effect, then fires off his punch line: "The fact is, I never took the bar exam."

Setting the record straight on this issue is important to him. He repeats it later in the interview, pointing out the difference between failing an exam and skipping an exam.

"I know a lot of law," says Mr. Brill, the son of a liquor-store owner, who won a scholarship to preppie Deerfield Academy and earned his bachelor's from Yale, summa cum laude, Phi Beta Kappa. "The fact is, there are some areas of law I could probably fake pretty well."

The fact is, Steve Brill never had any intention of becoming a lawyer. Journalism was always his goal.

"I think of myself as a journalist all the time, every minute of the day," he says, swiveling in his chair to face the view of Third Avenue from his midtown Manhattan office. "And I attack everything from a standpoint of journalism, of what's a good story. It's exactly the way I choose trials for Court TV."

Of course, choosing good stories for Court TV, a 24-hour cable network that covers live trials in courtrooms across the country, has not turned out to be one of journalism's most difficult assignments.

Since its debut in the summer of 1991, Court TV's live coverage has included such "good stories" as the William Kennedy Smith rape trial, the Jeffrey Dahmer insanity hearing, the Rodney King police-brutality trial, the Woody Allen/Mia Farrow custody hearing, the Reginald Denny beating case and -- not to be overlooked -- that blockbuster of a trial featuring the Menendez brothers, Lyle and Erik, who shot their parents and then went shopping for a Porsche and a couple of gold watches.

When it comes to storytelling, these trials have got it all. Sex. Violence. Cannibalism. Corruption. Greed. Racial injustice. Wife battering. Family intrigue.

You could say they are the Greek myths and Russian novels of our time; the modern-day equivalents of the tragic Electra ("Accused of Murdering Mother and Mother's Lover with Brother," as Court TV might caption it on your screen) or the brothers Karamazov ("Accused of Murdering Father").

"A trial is a story," says Mr. Brill, "and that's part of the fascination. It's about people who are in peril. Someone in that courtroom is either in danger of losing his or her life or losing a lot of money. And they're trying to fight off that peril. And there's a result. Do they win? Or do they lose?"

A trial, when televised live, he says, is also a cliffhanger. Nobody knows the end until the end. Not the judges, not the viewers, not the lawyers, not the defendants. That's the basis for Court TV's recent advertising campaign: "Great Drama. No Scripts."

"It's very exciting," says Mr. Brill, "because anything can happen." And he argues that a sense of community can come out of watching a live event on television: "It gives people a feeling that we're doing this together," he says.

Gearing up for O.J. Simpson

One of the things we'll soon be doing together is sitting glued to our TV sets watching the King Kong of courtroom dramas. It's looming just ahead, the Big One, the trial that threatens to slow down productivity, discourage voters from going to the polls and siphon off fans of regular TV soap operas.

In other words: the trial of O.J. Simpson, the most famous man ever accused of murder in America!

But first, a word of caution: It could be weeks, perhaps months, before you see gavel-to-gavel coverage of O.J. and Marcia Clark and Robert Shapiro and all the other characters introduced in the preliminary hearing. First comes the jury selection, scheduled to begin tomorrow and closed to all cameras. But once under way, Court TV will provide continuous live coverage of the trial. (Although Court TV is currently unavailable in the Baltimore area, United Artists Cable may offer it to city customers later this year. CNN also plans to carry live coverage of the trial.)

Unless, of course, the presiding judge, Lance Ito, decides to reconsider allowing cameras in the courtroom, a move some say may favor.

It's a question Mr. Brill has been expecting.

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