11 of the Most-Watched Television Trials

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Thinkstock/Global Post/Bryan Dugan

For 17 weeks, couch-lounging court-watchers have sat transfixed as the trial of Jodi Arias—the crazy-eyed photographer/Mormon/vixen accused of murdering her boyfriend, Travis Alexander—has unfolded. Approximately 500,000 viewers have tuned in to HLN (sister channel to TruTV, formerly known as Court TV) daily, as coverage of the often-salacious case has permeated every corner of the cable news channel’s programming.

Throughout the day, courtroom cameras roll nonstop, with the “action” paused and restarted only for commercial breaks (which one anchor proudly announces as “time to pay the bills”) and quick commentator analysis. And just in case viewers were panicked at the thought that they may have missed one second of testimony, the channel’s production team has created enormous on-screen “Play” and “Pause” buttons in order to allay any such fears.

Regular programming has ceased to cover much but the Arias trial and they’ve even added a special late-night talk show, HLN After Dark: The Jodi Arias Trial, in which lawyers argue a new “bold accusation” nightly (Did Jodi torture Travis? Is Jodi a sexual deviant?), while a group of 12 fake jurors decide on the outcome. Mock trials haven’t been this fun since Arrested Development.

Of course, Arias isn’t the first defendant-turned-small-screen-staple. On April 11, 1961, the trial of war criminal Adolf Eichmann was the first to be completely televised. Here are 11 of the most-watched since then.

1. Ted Bundy, 1979

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Shortly before he was executed in 1989, convicted serial killer Ted Bundy copped to murdering 30 women across the country between 1974 and 1978 (though some believe the true number to be more than that). Handsome and charismatic, Bundy’s arrest and subsequent showboating made worldwide headlines (he was assigned five court-appointed attorneys, but the former law student insisted on leading his own defense, speaking in the third person and everything). More than 250 journalists from around the globe descended on Miami in the summer of 1979, when proceedings began in the case of the Chi Omega murders—where Bundy broke into a sorority house at Florida State University and attacked four women in less than 15 minutes, killing two of them. Bundy’s trial was the first to be televised nationally, and it didn’t end well for him; a guilty verdict brought him two death sentences, with a third following six months later after a separate trial in Orlando.

2. William Kennedy Smith, 1991

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Much like the O.J. Simpson trial, a famous last (or, more accurately, middle) name fueled public interest—and goosed viewer ratings—in the case of William Kennedy Smith, the 30-year-old Kennedy clan member charged with rape following what he professed was a consensual sexual encounter in Palm Beach, Florida. CNN’s broadcast of the trial—in which Smith was acquitted of all charges—was deemed a victory for televised courtroom proceedings, as it gave everyday viewers an up-close look at how the American justice system truly operates.

3. Jeffrey Dahmer, 1992

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When it came time for cannibalistic serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer to stand trial for the murder of 15 boys and men, Court TV was there—but on a 10-second delay, in order to carefully edit out those exhibits and discussions that might be too disturbing to viewers. On February 17, 1992, more than 60 global news organizations were on hand to broadcast the guilty verdict. Dahmer was sentenced to 15 consecutive life sentences for his crimes; on November 28, 1994, he was beaten to death by a fellow prison inmate.

4. The Officers who assaulted Rodney King, 1992

From the violent beating that begat the trial of four LAPD officers to the explosive riots that occurred in the wake of the verdict, the brutal assault of construction worker Rodney King went beyond “gavel-to-gavel” coverage. Assault with a deadly weapon and use of excessive force were the charges lodged against four officers, whose attack on King following a high-speed chase was caught on video by a nearby resident and ignited a national conversation on police brutality. On April 29, 1992, the acquittal of the officers sparked immediate riots around Los Angeles, in which 54 people were killed, 2328 were injured and more than 7000 fires were ignited causing $900 million in property damage.

5. Lyle and Erik Menendez, 1993

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Just two years after its launch, noted journalist and media entrepreneur Steve Brill landed his first big courtroom coup when his Court TV (which changed its name to TruTV in 2008) broadcast the high-profile trial of Lyle and Erik Menendez, a.k.a. The Menendez Brothers. With cameras rolling and millions of viewers watching, the brothers’ sordid defense for killing their wealthy parents—claiming dad was an abusive pedophile and mom was a self-absorbed drug addict—turned the proceeding into worldwide media fodder, particularly as the brothers were tried together (though a separate jury decided each one’s fate). In the end both juries were deadlocked, leading to a second trial in 1995, in which no cameras were allowed. The second time around, it took only four days for the brothers to be convicted—both on two counts of first-degree murder—and sentenced to life in prison.

6. O.J. Simpson, 1995

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Interest in the trial of O.J. Simpson—who was accused of murdering his ex-wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and her friend Ronald Goldman—was certainly bolstered by the ex-NFL star and occasional-actor’s celebrity status. The trial also made a household name of Johnnie Cochran, Simpson’s prone-to-theatrics defense attorney, who famously declared during his closing arguments, in reference to a pair of gloves assumed to be used by the killer that did not fit The Juice’s hands, “If it doesn’t fit, you must acquit.” The jury agreed, delivering a “Not Guilty” verdict as more than 100 million interested parties watched from home (which is about as many people as tuned in for the 2010 Super Bowl). 

7. Phil Spector, 2007 & 2009

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Court TV was on the scene for yet another celebrity trial when legendary music producer Phil Spector was prosecuted in the murder of actress Lana Clarkson, whom he claimed committed suicide at his residence. Truth be told, Spector’s bizarre behavior and collection of wild wigs may have drawn the most attention during this trial, which ended with a hung jury. Cameras were not allowed into the court for his 2009 retrial, where the jury declared Spector guilty of murder in the second degree.

8. Lindsay Lohan, 2010

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TV trials went high-tech in 2010, when troublemaking trainwreck Lindsay Lohan was sentenced to 90 days in jail and 90 days in rehab for repeatedly violating the terms of her probation (following two arrests for drunk driving in 2007). TMZ.com attracted a record number of viewers when 2.3 million people logged on to watch the verdict stream live from the courtroom on July 7, 2010.

9. Casey Anthony, 2011

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If it weren’t for polarizing personality Nancy Grace—a former prosecutor and now HLN’s most popular host and legal commentator—the case of Casey Anthony, the young Florida mom charged with murdering her two-year-old daughter Caylee Marie, might not have been such a national cultural obsession. Largely spurred by Grace’s outrage over the case (in which she nicknamed the defendant “Tot Mom”), HLN offered all-Casey coverage all the time for the entire six weeks of the trial—not to mention the hundreds of hours logged analyzing the evidence in the three years that elapsed between Casey’s arrest and the final verdict. In the 15 minutes it took for the jury to announce its acquittal of the 25-year-old, 5.2 million people watched the verdict on HLN, bringing in the channel’s highest-ever ratings (to this day). Grace’s response to the judgment? “The devil is dancing tonight.”

10. Dr. Conrad Murray, 2011

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Just three months after the Casey Anthony trial concluded, HLN attempted to recapture ratings glory by presenting beginning-to-end coverage of the trial of Dr. Conrad Murray, the physician eventually found guilty of involuntary manslaughter in the death of Michael Jackson. While viewership never reached Anthony-level highs, it did boost the channel’s October ratings by 98 percent over the same month the previous year, with 2.1 million people tuning in to watch the verdict read live.

11. Jodi Arias, 2013

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Comparisons to Casey Anthony began almost immediately after Jodi Arias was arrested: Both defendants are attractive young women prone to lying and accused of murdering a close confidante. Even as the trial enters its 17th week, Arias remains HLN’s highest priority. Day and night, all of the channel’s regular programming (including “Showbiz Tonight,” its entertainment-themed late-night show) focuses primarily on the Arias case, with a series of talking head psychologists, legal experts and regular court-watchers weighing in with their opinions and analyses. With closing arguments set for next Thursday and Friday, the live verdict audience is sure to trump the currently average daily viewership of around 435,000.

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May 2, 2013 - 11:00am
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