Drama in the Courtroom Can be Riveting, but …

Back in the days when I- quite literally – chased ambulances for a living, I would sometimes be assigned to cover the courts. And every so often a lurid case would come along that made the headlines. The court room would be packed for the sensational trials, of course, but I noticed there was a hard core following that filled those seats even for the most mundane cases.

Some people go to baseball games. Some watch trials.

I have to admit that the legal system can be fascinating. When I was growing up in Jamaica, the Daily Gleaner would publish lengthy transcripts of big cases, and I remember my mother reading the questions and answers aloud and commenting on the thrust-and-parry they presented. That was far away and long ago, but it seems people are still the same everywhere.

Court room dramas like the Perry Mason series have long been a sure-fire bet for TV producers, and the genre has evolved into quasi-reality shows like Judge Judy, Judge Joe Brown and the People’s Court. Now, the cable news channels have caught on. CNN scored a ratings triumph with the  Jodi Arias soap opera. And the pandering producers at Fox and MSNBC have jumped on the bandwagon with the George Zimmerman trial.

But the Zimmerman trial is not good drama. It is not good TV. Quite frankly, it is boring.

Only the most credulous viewer could be in doubt about the outcome. An armed man fatally shoots an unarmed teenager after disregarding a police directive not to follow the kid. The details are irrelevant. If Zimmerman is not found guilty – of manslaughter at least – it would be a greater travesty than the OJ acquittal.

But the actors in this soap opera are wringing every last drop of drama out of it. And, I suspect, every last drop of publicity. Whoever heard of Mark O’Mara, Zimmerman’s lawyer, before this? (I’d heard of Mark O’Meara, the golfer, of course.) Now, the whole world knows the Florida attorney’s name.

(Photo above shows O’Mara using a mannequin to re-enact the fight between Zimmerman and Trayvon Martin.)

Not only the lawyers but also those so-called experts will undoubtedly emerge from this show with their names in lights. And in America, name recognition translates into cash. As P.T. Barnum is supposed to have said, there’s no such things as bad publicity.

The cable networks have gone overboard, figuring that with its racial overtones, this trial is a can’t-miss ratings godsend. But this time the pandering has backfired – for at least one broadcaster.  I read this morning that MSNBC’s ratings have plummeted as viewers turn away from the endless preemption of political news by the Zimmerman trial. The channel now has just 576,000 prime time viewers, down 16 percent from a year ago.

Perhaps MSNBC’s producers underestimated their audience. Perhaps we MSNBC viewers are more intelligent than they thought. Or perhaps the trial isn’t as entertaining as they had hoped. We’ll have to see how the other news channels fare as the trial goes on.

At least the ratings question promises some suspense – unlike the trial itself.

Click here for the MSNBC ratings story.

Click for the Jodi Arias story.

Click for Arias trial’s ratings impact.