The infamous Menendez murder trial is turning the cable channel into a soap-worthy cult habit

Pornography. That’s what they talked about on Court TV today. Just when you thought the murder trial of Lyle and Erik Menendez couldn’t get any more interesting, here comes a witness to say that Jose and Kitty Menendez, who were shot repeatedly by their sons in the family room in August 1989, kept pornography upstairs in the master bedroom. I am not sure what this means. Could it be that these strapping Beverly Hills brats on trial are telling the truth? That they were sexually abused by their father and humiliated by their mother—and killed their parents in self-defense? Or were Jose and Kitty simply a fun couple unjustly murdered by their spoiled sons, who couldn’t wait for the $14 million inheritance?

Tune in tomorrow. I know I will, as I have since July 20, when Court TV began airing the grisly murder trial of the Menendez brothers in its entirety. Erik took the witness stand apparently under sedation and calmly detailed the humiliation and sodomy forced on him by his father, whose sick lingo for sexual positions rang across cocktail parties everywhere: ”knees,” ”nice sex,” ”rough sex.” Goodness. I haven’t learned so many new phrases since the Clarence Thomas hearings, which were also carried by Court TV.

Like most Court TV addicts, I now find myself not only obsessed with the impending verdict but caught up in the theater of the trial itself. Just look at defense attorney Leslie Abramson’s hair! She’s Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction on a humid day. As for prosecutor Pamela Bozanich, she should definitely stop wearing those silly-girl bows. And will Judge Stanley Weisberg ever smile? Sustaining and overruling in that deadly monotone, peering over those little round glasses, he reminds me of comedian Steven Wright without the punch lines.

Starting as a minor cable channel in July 1991, Court TV (which, like this magazine, is owned by Time Warner) has slowly built a cult following, attracting its current estimated audience of 1.3 million viewers with a gamut of trials ranging from a case concerning a Pennsylvania auto-lemon law to more dramatic fare starring Marlon Brando, Jeffrey Dahmer, and Rodney King. Viewer calls have risen from 150 to 1,000 per week during the trials, and nothing has pulled a bigger, steadier following than the Menendez case. The Los Angeles district attorney’s office gets nearly 50 calls a day from Court TV watchers with advice on how best to prosecute the Menendez boys. Even Saturday Night Live, arbiter of the national consciousness, parodied the coverage not long ago, with John Malkovich as Lyle—tears, toupee, and all.

In those markets still deprived of the channel, 14.2 million households are often staying up past bedtime for the syndicated half-hour newsmagazine Court TV: Inside America’s Courts, which digests the channel’s most newsworthy events from all over the country. At least one Los Angeles fan has renamed her dogs Lyle and Erik and her cats Jose and Kitty.

Staring wide-eyed at the Menendez brothers—or at the three or four other trials playing out on the channel—Court TV devotees are making stars out of the commentators. Leading heartthrob: anchor Jack Ford, one of six desk jockeys, all legally trained, who provide the network’s lively play-by-play and can make a copyright case almost as interesting as a murder trial. Runners-up: anchor Fred Graham, the former New York Times and CBS News law correspondent, and Terry Moran, the handsome field reporter covering the Menendez trial in Van Nuys, Calif., where he has become a local celebrity.

Steve Brill, 43, editor in chief of The American Lawyer and 10 other regional legal journals, is the man who started it all two years ago, quickly giving the channel a high profile by broadcasting the William Kennedy Smith rape trial (and covering Smith’s accuser with a blue dot—remember the blue dot?). Brill describes Court TV’s formula as ”a mix of soap operas and C-SPAN. It’s a governmental proceeding, but it’s drama.” And although sensation-heavy ads for the network declare, ”If Court TV were any more addictive, it would be illegal,” Brill tries to program a channel that’s more straight news and less of a circus act. During the Dahmer trial, for example, Court TV’s cameras never subjected us to the refrigerator photos. And the network supplies a fair share of sober supplemental programming, including Prime Time Justice, a two- hour daily wrap-up, and Miller’s Law, a call-in show during which viewers ask Harvard law professor Arthur Miller about everything from declaring bankruptcy to hiring babysitters. ”If Rupert Murdoch ran this channel,” says Brill, ”this could be the rape channel.”

No matter how relatively restrained it might be, there’s no doubt that Court TV is turning the justice system into pop fare. Is this objectionable? Hell, no, I say—that’s why courtrooms have spectator seats. Brill, however, gave a more dispassionate defense in a 1990 American Lawyer article. He reasoned that racial tensions in New York City might not have escalated so during the 1990 Bensonhurst murder trial ”if the lead black player in this nightly television drama had been the judge rather than the Reverend Al Sharpton, a clownish demagogue who was the lead fist shaker on the nightly news.”

And what about the fists shaking at Brill himself? Sandi Gibbons, public- information officer for the L.A. district attorney’s office, gripes about guest commentators who sit with the anchors and critique the action (among them former Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork and celebrity divorce attorney Raoul Felder). ”I don’t think that our prosecutors really relish the fact that there’s some defense lawyer out there who makes about eight times more than they do a year telling the American public that they’re doing a lousy job.” And viewers calling in often accuse Court TV (usually unjustifiably) of taking various sides. Yet even Gibbons is a Court TV fan, saying, ”It’s encouraging that the public is allowed to go into a courtroom via TV cameras and understand our system of justice a little better.” Asked if Court TV’s glaring spotlight has affected the Menendez case, she says, ”The only people that count are the two juries hearing the case (one for each brother). The juries are not hearing as much about the case as the public is.”

But the public, too, is looking for truth among the soapsuds. And that is the ultimate appeal of Court TV: As I sift through the carnage of the Menendez trial, I am not only reveling in the gristle and gore but participating in a search for justice, just as I am looking for justice for Rodney King, Reginald Denny, Dahmer’s victims, even Art Buchwald. There’s no Vicki or Montel or Sally or Geraldo mugging for the Nielsen families and telling us what to think. There’s just a judge, a jury, and a solemn promise to provide us some answers with a verdict.