Crime has been paying well enough for Court TV, the fast-growing cable network launched in 1991 (and founded by the now beleaguered Steven Brill) that under chief executive Henry Schleiff has doubled its reach to 60 million viewers in recent years, doling out televised trials by day and original riffs on the criminal justice system by night. But brand extension pays, too, and the network is now giving the green light to a variety of book-related projects it hopes will parlay its courtroom dramas into bestseller material, and vice versa. “We’re being very opportunistic, because we have resources and experts that nobody else has,” says Court TV General Counsel Doug Jacobs. “Books are a great way for us to put our best foot forward.”
Book traffic flows in several directions at Court TV. The company is actively seeking books and manuscripts — primarily nonfiction — that it can develop as TV programming. “We are very interested in books,” affirms Rosalie Muskatt, Vice President for original movies, speaking from the Toronto set of Court TV’s first original television movie. That production, set to air in 2002, chronicles the plight of a woman who has two young children and is slammed with 20 years in prison under questionably excessive drug laws. It typifies Court TV originals in that it deals “with strong social issues that have elements of American crime and justice,” Muskatt says. “They need to be contemporary stories.” The network aims to produce between two and four TV movies per year, all in the same social-justice vein. “We’re also very open to exploring established writers and working with them on original ideas,” Muskatt adds.
Going the other direction, the network develops book spin-offs based on its documentaries and other televised or online content. Since Court TV is half owned by AOL Time Warner (the other half is held by Liberty Media), the AOL publishing family makes a natural book partner. Earlier this year, for example, Time Warner unit Little, Brown published The Smoking Gun, a volume of documents taken from the Court TV-owned website of the same name, which collects an amusing array of “secret, surprising, and salacious” items through freedom-of-information requests and other means, and serves them to 600,000 visitors a month. (Featured document: Burt Reynolds’ 1996 bankruptcy statement, disclosing his $7,500 debt to two toupee companies.) There’s also Shots in the Dark, a compendium of crime photography published by Little, Brown in connection with a Court TV documentary on the subject. And the Time Warner family is set to publish a book called You Be the Judge, based on summaries of trials and featuring an interactive component that lets readers guess the verdict in each case. Despite the AOL synergy, however, executives stress that Court TV is open to deals with other houses. In 1999, says Jacobs, Kensington was invited to raid the network’s library of trial stories for a series of four books collecting the hottest cases in the archives.
On the classroom front, Court TV has renewed a deal with Wadsworth International Thompson Learning, which has licensed 25 Court TV documentaries as “added value” for its textbooks. The network’s “Choices and Consequences” effort feeds a number of teen-relevant documentaries into classrooms, and the company may look into publishing related textbooks for teens as well. Elsewhere, discussions are burbling about a print version of the material collected on Court TV’s website, which includes extensive trial coverage (more than 700 cases have aired to date), an archive of verdicts, and more riveting, salacious documents (O.J. Simpson transcript, anyone?). A subsidiary site, Crime Library, contains a database with serial killers from Jack the Ripper to Ted Bundy, ripe for repackaging in book form.
It can start to sound unsavory. But back on the set in Toronto, Muskatt emphasizes that not just any drive-by crime novel will do for a Court TV production. “I wish we could just adapt a wonderful murder mystery,” she says. “But that’s not our mandate. We’re hoping that this movie will call attention to drug laws that need to be looked at and changed. What we’re trying to do across the board with our movies is to stimulate conversation.”