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Diatribe: GUEST POST – Truth is Stranger Than Fiction: The Undeniable Allure of Televised Trials.

08/04/2013

GuestBloggerSex sells. We saw this most recently in the trial of Jodi Arias, where the combination of an attractive woman, sexually graphic testimony, photos, phone calls and text messages kept a huge audience glued to cable news coverage. In this real-life tragic soap opera, Arias was accused of first-degree murder for stabbing, shooting and slashing the throat of her ex-boyfriend while he was naked and showering. Before the trial was over, loyal viewers were treated to testimony that was sometimes explicit enough to be deemed pornographic. Viewers could listen without feeling sleazy because they were getting an education in how the criminal justice system works. It was that combination of sex and civics lesson that made the trial so compelling.

Courtroom GavelThe trial proved to be lucrative for cable news stations. HLN in particular got a big ratings boost, with controversial host Nancy Grace at the forefront, according to the Hollywood Reporter. It helped that many households received the cable news coverage. Nearly every channel package on SatelliteTV.net includes HLN, CNN and Fox News. The audience peaked when the verdict was read, drawing more than 646,000 viewers, as noted by the Hollywood Reporter. Unlike Casey Anthony and O.J. Simpson, Arias was found guilty.

Casey Anthony’s Acquittal

Casey Anthony’s trial had all the elements needed to become a cable news blockbuster — an attractive, dishonest defendant who allegedly killed her own child. HLN, the network that airs Grace’s eponymous show, received some of its highest ratings ever during Anthony’s trial, noted CNN. By the time Anthony was found not guilty of murder, virtually everyone in the country, along with many people around the world, were aware of the case.

O. J. SimpsonThe Trial of the Century

O.J.’s murder trial captivated the country with its heady mix of celebrity, lavish Los Angeles lifestyles, jealousy, rage and race. It made lawyers Marcia Clark, Johnnie Cochran and even Robert Kardashian household names long before Kardashian’s kids leaped into the spotlight. The trial also spawned such famous catch phrases as “If it doesn’t fit, you must acquit.”

The trial also represented an early step towards cable’s triumph over network news. The lure of live coverage, provided by CNN and Court TV, drew viewers away from the nightly network news broadcasts, which provided only a summary of the day’s events. The network news programs lost as much as 10 percent of their audience during the Simpson trial, according to the New York Times.

Courtroom Drama at the Movies

There is something in human nature that draws people to stories about trials. Before cable TV existed, people flocked to movies that revolved around criminal courts. Some of these films received critical praise and achieved classic status.

The 1962 film “To Kill a Mockingbird,” was not only popular with moviegoers, but also won three Oscars — best actor (Gregory Peck), best art direction and best screenplay for a work based on another medium, the acclaimed novel by Harper Lee. Unlike many of today’s closely watched trials, which often draw an audience due to the beauty or glamor of the accused and the bloodiness of the crime, the attraction of “Mockingbird” lay in the moral courage of its lead. The story, about a black man falsely accused of raping a white woman, gathered its energy from the racial tensions that divided the country.

About the author … Sherry Levine – As a child actor, Sherry appeared in numerous commercials and as an extra on several kids shows. She can appreciate the work that goes into making a film or TV show, and that’s why she loves to review them.

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2 Comments
  1. Televised trials can be good education (barring Nancy Grace 🙂 I’ve learned a lot over the years. And I love my *mute* button which was in heavy use during the JA trial.

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  2. Another courtroom favorite of mine is “Twelve Angry Men” which told of the personal prejudices & idealism of a jury. I do not spend a lot of time watching any of the live courtroom drama on the cable news networks because I find it sensationalized to the point it makes me nauseous. Plus they spend hours & hours going over the same thing over & over again. They can take 2 hours of testimony & turn it into a 24 hour news cycle!

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