Station offers live feed on net of murder trial

Nov 5, 2001  •  Post A Comment

There may never be another made-for-TV murder trial quite like O.J. Simpson’s, but lots of court cases could be tailor-made for cyberspace, if an experiment by Philadelphia’s WPVI-TV is any indication.
In late October, the station’s Web site, www.wpvi.com, provided live streaming-video coverage of the Cherry Hill, N.J., trial of Rabbi Fred J. Neulander, who was accused of murdering his wife, Carol, in 1994. WPVI, an ABC affiliate, was the only Philadelphia station to webcast the Neulander trial, and it appears to be the first local station anywhere in the country to connect a courtroom to the Internet.
“We certainly can give coverage of the trial in our news programming and other local programming, but you can only really give the highlights,” said Dave Davis, WPVI general manager. “New Jersey has camera-in-the-court legislation, so it provided that possibility-we knew there would be a camera in there. This was just a way to give our viewers, who have a big interest in this trial, more coverage than we could provide on our television channel.”
The Neulander trial began the week of Oct. 16, after seven years of police investigations and grand jury hearings. Local interest in the trial has been high, not only because the rabbi was a well-known public figure in the area, but also because of the star witnesses: two men claiming to be hit men whom Mr. Neulander allegedly paid $30,000 to commit the murder.
Still, that’s not enough intrigue to warrant pre-empting “Oprah,” so a live webcast was the perfect alternative, said Lee Daniels, WPVI Web operations manager.
“People would be upset at us for cutting into their soap operas and other on-air broadcast shows for certain things like this,” Mr. Daniels said. “We understand that a lot of people wouldn’t want to see it, but for those who do, we want to make it available. We look at it as a community service, and something that we should be doing.”
Court TV has been video-streaming trials of national interest from its own Web site (www.CourtTV.com) since 1998. Its high-profile cybercasts have included the sex-assault trial of former Green Bay Packer Mark Chmura and the “retrial” in the case of Dr. Sam Sheppard, whose saga inspired “The Fugitive,” said a CourtTV.com spokesman.
It was Court TV’s decision to webcast the O.J. Simpson Florida “road rage” trial rather than the Neulander case that prompted WPVI to pick up the cyber-slack, Mr. Daniels said. Although the trial proceedings had already started, the WPVI.com staff hurriedly set up a fiber-optic line and video converters to launch the cybercast in time for the trial’s dramatic final days the week of Oct. 22.
On average, about 2,500 to 3,500 people watched the Neulander webcast on any given day, but in the early going, viewership peaked at about 11,000, Mr. Daniels said.
“Of the local media, we were the only ones delivering this on the Internet,” he added. “But we didn’t go out and say, `Let’s be the first one to do it.’ We just happened to be the first one.
“In addition, we were the first to deliver a wireless signal last year from the Republican National Convention, where people could read pages from our Web site on their Palm Pilots or cellphones. So it seems like the things we do tend to be kind of groundbreaking, at least for our area.”