By Lee Alan Hill
Special to TelevisionWeek
Ask those who know Henry Schleiff for one word to describe the chairman and CEO of Court TV Networks, and while they praise his abilities and say he is most deserving of this year’s Vanguard Award for Programmers, they admit that one word is “funny.”
“Court TV has been a wonderful platform for Henry,” said Art Bell, president and chief operating officer of Court TV. “This company allows Henry to combine his love of the justice system with his love of showmanship.”
Mr. Schleiff indeed has roots in the law, and not just because he has a degree from the University of Pennsylvania Law School, where he was editor of the Law Review. He also clerked for a U.S. District Court judge and was a corporate associate in the law firm of Davis Polk & Wardell.
Eventually, Mr. Schleiff left Wall Street to become senior VP of business affairs and administration for HBO and later head of HBO Enterprises, arriving at the premium network in 1981, just as it was exploding. He moved on to the creative side as chairman and CEO of Viacom’s Broadcast and Entertainment Groups, then for several years was an executive producer of programming under the Viacom banner.
“One of the shows we did was the ‘Perry Mason’ [TV movie] specials,” Mr. Schleiff recalled. “So I guess you could say during this period my closest legal connection was with Raymond Burr.”
Then in 1998 came the call from Richard Parsons, CEO of Time Warner, which is an equal ownership partner in Court TV with Liberty Media. Court TV, which had received attention during high-profile trials earlier in the decade, was on the decline. Time Warner needed someone to turn it around, and urgently.
Under Mr. Schleiff, Court TV is thriving. The network has grown from 38 million subscribers to 85 million, and such 8 p.m. programs as “Video Justice” and “Cops” have helped Court TV gain a foothold among the 18 to 49 demographic. That growing demo strength has been a boost to the network’s signature series, such as “Forensic Files” and “Power, Privilege & Justice,” the latter hosted by writer Dominick Dunne.
“Trial coverage is still an integral part of what we offer,” Mr. Schleiff said. “But when we walked in seven or eight years ago, we knew we had to create a network that stands for something.
“There are so many choices the viewer is confused,” he added. “The viewer is looking for simplicity. When your network and your programming shout ‘consistency!’ it’s extremely helpful. I think we’ve done that. I think we have a network that not only makes a profit, it makes a difference.”
Perhaps that statement comes from Schleiff the showman, but Schleiff the lawyer is still very alive, and that part of his persona is audible when he discusses areas in which he is working with the National Cable & Telecommunications Association.
“It’s more than just the usual business issues. These issues have become more political than economic. I support the NCTA and I think it’s done a good job in replying to those in Washington who are promoting an uninformed political agenda,” he said. “I refer specifically to the issue of a la carte and the notion that the consumer should be able to pay only for the cable networks they want. There’s no consumer demand for this. Rather, it’s politicians placating the radical fringe of their constituency.”