Just a few days before Court TV began its pool coverage of opening statements in the O.J. Simpson murder trial, network president Steven Brill held a dinner to meet with his courthouse camera crew and producers.
“The only way you are going to be famous in the next few months,” he told them half-jokingly, “is if you screw up.”
Wednesday, Brill and his employees took center stage under a harsh spotlight, forced to explain to a furious judge and a curious public how they allowed a brief shot of an alternate juror to be broadcast in violation of a court order restricting dissemination of jurors’ images.
Although Judge Lance Ito allowed Court TV to continue its coverage of the sensational trial after the network apologized for its error, the cable station is still staggering from the split-second mistake. The bitter brush with fame was a stark reminder of the tremendous responsibility the upstart cable network - granted permission by the court to transmit feeds from the Simpson trial to television stations around the world - carries on its shoulders.
“For us this is a disaster for this to happen on the first day” of opening statements, said Brill, 45, editor of the hard-hitting American Lawyer magazine and founder of the network, which has benefited from one scandalous trial after another since its start in 1991. “At least it will give me something to talk about when people say Court TV has had a lucky life. Now I can say we have had something unlucky happened.”
Since it was started in 1991 by Brill and several other media companies, Court TV has given an estimated 18 million cable subscribers the courtroom sagas of William Kennedy Smith, the Menendez brothers, Rodney King, Reginald Denny, John and Lorena Bobbitt - all broadcast gavel-to-gavel without error.
Court TV officials hoped to boost their viewership as the Simpson trial got into full swing. But it wasn’t just about ratings, it was also about standing toe-to-toe with the major networks.
And then The Moment.
As the Court TV cameraman followed Marcia Clark walking toward the counsel table during her opening statements Tuesday, the camera caught a side view of a female alternate juror leaning forward in her chair. The woman’s face was clearly seen for eight-tenths of a second before the camera jerked away. A delay operator sitting at a “kill” switch missed the shot and didn’t black it out, allowing it to be inadvertently shown to the entire nation.
Cynthia Glozier, Court TV’s supervising producer for the Simpson case, immediately informed Ito of what had occurred, but that did little to temper the judge’s anger.
After threatening to pull the plug on television coverage, Ito ruled that only “static shots” of the courtroom were allowed to be shown, until Court TV could put new safeguards in place to ensure that a similar mistake won’t happen again.