If you polled everyone attending the CTAM Summit in Seattle this week, chances are most of them wouldn’t know that Court TV CEO Henry Schleiff once contributed skits to Saturday Night Live, a fact the Catskiller-at-heart typically downplays. And even fewer folks might know that the attorney-turned-aspiring-entertainer’s cable network also owns The Smoking Gun (www.thesmokinggun.com), one of the hottest and hippest websites to survive the dot-com meltdown. That’s the Internet-based stomping ground that mixes celebrity shame — from mug shots and depositions to divorce papers and outrageous backstage demands — with a dose of serious court papers such as The Starr Report, goofy small-town crimes-gone-wrong and quirkier fare such as the dress code manual for Victoria’s Secret, the lingerie peddler that prohibits its salespeople from wearing anything even slightly risqué. Everything on TheSmokingGun.com is real. And while most of it is posted for laughs, it’s also at times startling, chilling or just plain weird — and occasionally all three, particularly when it comes to the foibles of reality TV contestants, a pop culture genre that has become something of a cottage industry for its four full-time staffers. The brainchild of former Village Voice staffers Bill Bastone and Danny Green, it was spared the fate of many a dot-com when Court TV bought the website in late 2000 and hired its team of Internet-based investigators. With the support of Schleiff & Co. the website has flourished. It now averages 3.7 million unique visitors, a tenfold increase over its 2000 traffic figures. And it’s starting to make its presence felt beyond cyberspace, with a Smoking Gun column planned for People magazine and Infinity radio adding syndicated Smoking Gun segments. It has also reported real news, unearthing FBI documents showing that the late Timothy Leary had ratted on his counterculture cronies, among other scoops. Bastone says they’ve been pretty much flying under the radar since moving into the Court TV offices. “Henry jokes that we’re his free-range chickens, tapping away in the corner. I’m not certain Henry surfs; maybe he’s never actually visited the site.” Schleiff’s in-house muckrakers are about to become a bigger fixture on Court TV, where TSG editor Bastone and managing editor Green — who produce the website with two reporters — already contribute weekly cyber-snooping and legal skewers to Catherine Crier Live and the Karen Duffy-hosted Hollywood at Large. On Aug. 20 the network is running two back-to-back half-hour episodes of Smoking Gun TV, an irreverent look at law and disorder hosted by Mo Rocca, the senior political correspondent for Comedy Central’s The Daily Show With Jon Stewart, who claims he learned everything he knows about the law from TSG and who calls Nick Nolte’s wild-haired mug shot “the Whistler’s Mother of my generation.” “I was a fan of their website and didn’t even know it,” says Rocca. “A lot of the stories that have come through to us on The Daily Show originated with The Smoking Gun. I had been an unwitting fan for many years, so you can imagine my thrill to host these specials, which I like to think of as a celebration of dunderheaded misdeeds by celebrities and noncelebrities.” “The challenge is bringing a website to life on television in an entertaining way. It’s terrific, really an excellent show,” says Court TV president and COO Art Bell of the TV version of the website’s unique legal levity. “Mo Rocca is a wonderful talent, and I think it’s going to be a breakout show for him. Given that we’ve got a website that pulls in 3 million unique visitors on a monthly basis and going up, this is an opportunity for us to introduce a new constituency for Court TV’s programming, and I think this could become a more regular entry than quarterly. The material is there, Mo is champing at the bit to do more, and it’s a great opportunity for us to do some of the things we’re trying to do on Court TV more generally. Our audience is getting younger, and this is a chance to open up that younger end of the audience for us and introduce them to Forensic Files and Body of Evidence and our other shows.” A third special is planned for year-end, and Bell sees an even bigger future for Bastone and his team, one that will drive programming and online in tandem. “We’ve been leveraging The Smoking Gun brand appeal in a lot of different ways,” says Bell. “The television show is going to help us get advertisers to sit up and take notice and see what this website can do. And we’re going to be putting this in front of operators, to show that Court TV has flanker brands that can really work well with their offerings.”

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