No survivors here

You want reality TV? How about real murderers and rapists confessing the intimate, horrific details of their crimes? A ratings grab, or the next logical step?

National Post
August 23, 2021
By Jim Rutenberg

Court TV, the cable channel devoted to covering the criminal justice system, will push television's popular reality genre to its limits next month with a new series, Confessions, that features actual videotaped confessions of murderers, rapists and other offenders.

The videotapes, recorded by district attorneys and police departments during criminal investigations, represent a relatively recent addition to the judicial system's resources in logging the facts in court cases. And just as all written materials from a trial enter the public record after the trial is completed, making them available to journalists, the videotapes are, too -- a designation that allows Court TV to air them virtually untouched. They will be edited only for brevity and clarity, and while some of the more graphic descriptions of the crimes will be excised, much will remain.

In the first program in the series, a homeless man describes a rape and a male prostitute details his murder of a wheelchair-bound client; another man admits to killing a woman in his apartment and dismembering her. The 30-minute, weekly program will have neither a host nor a narrator.

Viewers craving analysis or interpretation of the various cases will be directed to the Court TV Web site, where experts in psychology or criminology such as William J. Bratton, a former New York City police commissioner, will post commentary.

For Court TV, which rose in prominence during the trial of O.J. Simpson in 1995 but whose ratings plummeted after those proceedings concluded, the program represents an attempt to further distinguish itself from its cable competitors.

Though its ratings have surged in recent months, the network still lacks a break-out hit that would draw top ratings and force cable operators that have been hesitant to carry the channel to add it to their systems. Comedy Central found such a franchise hit in South Park, and A&E did so with Biography.

Executives at Court TV, which is owned by Time Warner and the Liberty Media Group, said last week they thought they had finally found their hit in Confessions. "This can be a signature series for us," said Henry Schleiff, Court TV's chairman and chief executive.

With the new show, the executives clearly hope to capitalize on the voracious appetite for televised voyeurism, most evident in the popularity of CBS's Survivor.

But Survivor, like its current and future reality show counterparts on CBS and other networks, is planned and controlled by programmers. Confessions will showcase stark, brutal and out-of-control reality.

Whether that will be accepted by the public on a regular basis is already a matter of debate among industry analysts.

"Everything changed one year ago, when Who Wants to Be a Millionaire aired for the first time," said Robert Thompson, founder of the Center of Popular Television at Syracuse University, where he is a professor of television and film. "By February, we've got Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire. By summer, Survivor and Big Brother. And, as we enter the fall, we've got True Life Confessions of Rapists and Murderers: America's Creepiest Home Videos."

Girding for criticism that his network is simply trying to capitalize on the shock value of very brutal crimes, Schleiff said he believed the program was in keeping with Court TV's stated mission: to cover all aspects of the criminal justice system.

"It's one of the only times the viewer is being taken to a place where they've never been before -- the inner sanctum of interrogation rooms," he said. "And we're exposing them to people who, in some cases, are literally evil incarnate."

Court TV has one of law enforcement's better-known figures to thank for the program's genesis: Confessions was conceived during a meeting the program's producers, Richard Kroehling and Eric Nadler, had with Robert M. Morgenthau, the Manhattan district attorney. (Morgenthau is the man upon whom the fictional prosecutor Adam Schiff is loosely based in the popular NBC series Law & Order.)

The meeting was convened to discuss ideas for Court TV programs, and Nadler said he recalled that Morgenthau had been among the first district attorneys to videotape confessions.

"Bob said, yes, in fact, he had an office filled with dozens, if not hundreds, of these videotapes," Nadler said. "Richard and I looked at each other at the same moment and we said, 'This could be fascinating.' "

Nadler said that Morgenthau determined that videotapes could be used by the producers in cases where the trial was complete and the confession had been entered into the court record, in which case they were available for public viewing.

The Manhattan district attorney's office later suggested 14 separate videotaped confessions for use on the program, he said. Based on whether they had coherent storylines and compelling testimony, 10 were edited into segments for the new program. The producers have made arrangements for other taped confessions to be collected from district attorneys' offices in other parts of the United States.

After screening the tapes, the producers said, they had decided that the confessions would play best without narration or even a program host.

"The entire series was designed to focus the viewer and put the viewer inside the story and inside the confessor's mind, period," Kroehling said. "We want this to be experiential television."

In the first episode, the confessions -- all of which were recorded in Manhattan -- are featured as they were recorded, on low-quality video with poor, though audible, sound. In some instances, the producers have used a split screen, with crime scene photos shown along with the confession.

The first confessor is Steven Smith, a homeless man convicted of raping and killing a female doctor in Bellevue Hospital in Manhattan in 1989. During his confession -- in which Smith frequently curses and yells at his interrogator -- he tries to implicate a second man as an accomplice. This man "made love to the lady," Smith says. (Later, at trial, Smith admitted there was no second man.)

In another confession, Daniel Rakowitz, who was charged with killing and dismembering a woman in Manhattan's East Village in 1989 but was found mentally unfit to stand trial, describes "the horribleness in which what I did to her."

Shocking? Maybe. Surprising? Given the recent successes of experimental programming, maybe not.

"We knew this was inevitable," said Thompson, the Syracuse television scholar. He sees the program's development as the logical progression in a television environment where programmers are facing more competition from a growing number of entertainment and information outlets.

"When you're flipping through the dial of 90 channels, everyone is trying to get something to stop you in your channel-surfing tracks," he said. "It used to be that a graphic scene in an HBO movie would do it. Now it takes something much more drastic."

That bothers people like Robert W. Peters, the president of Morality in Media, a media watchdog group in New York. "There's absolutely no real educational purpose in this -- this is just exploitative programming," Peters said. "The only possible explanation for Court TV doing this is they must be desperate to get some higher-rated programming."

Schleiff argued that by allowing the public to see "what these people are," the show "serves the greater good." But while Court TV programmers do not dispute that they want high ratings for the program, they took issue with the word "desperate."

Two years ago, when Court TV focused mainly on straight-ahead trial coverage and nighttime legal analysis, the channel was suffering badly, watched in an average of only 40,000 households a night. Schleiff, who took over the network in January, 1999, bought reruns of crime-related programs -- first Homicide and, later, Cops, the half-hour reality show that originated on Fox -- and developed its own series, such as Crime Stories, a documentary crime program.

The change in direction vastly improved the channel' s fortunes. Through August, in prime time, the network has been watched in an average of 320,000 homes an evening, something of a feat for a channel only available in 45 million homes. Advertising revenues, Schleiff said, have risen 300% in the last year.

But whether Confessions will be embraced by the advertising community, let alone the public, is still unclear. "I don't know what client we would handle that would say, 'Hey, let me get on that show,' " said Tom DeCabia, executive vice-president of Schulman/Advanswers.ny, a media buying firm. He predicted the show would be highly rated at its premier. But "are people going to watch it again?" he said. "Tough to say."

Schleiff said he had spoken with his sponsors, whose names he would not divulge, and none had expressed any deep concern -- although most predicted controversy. And that is just fine with him: "What's that old saw? The other side of controversy is attention," he said. "I hope the show stirs up attention. I hope it brings attention to Court TV."