True Justice

Steve Schiffman, CEO of Justice Network, reveals how the true crime channel is expanding in the U.S. broadcast space.

It just so happens that Justice Network’s two-year anniversary fell on the same day as Donald Trump’s inauguration as President of the United States in January.

The milestone – the U.S. multicast network’s, not Trump’s – leads co-founder and CEO Steve Schiffman to reflect on how far the free-to-air (FTA) channel has come since its own inauguration to the American television landscape in January 2015.

“We have achieved 61% distribution across the U.S. broadcast market, but what makes us unique in the multicast space is that we have a societal initiative,” says the former National Geographic Channels president, who founded Justice along with Bounce TV founder Lonnie Cooper in 2014.

“We have hundreds of missing children spots, safety tips, and most-wanted fugitive slots – we have been responsible for finding 83 fugitives and 58 missing children. I thought we would do one or two but in two years we have exceeded our expectations.”

Justice, through its partnership with leading broadcast TV group Tegna Media (formerly known as Gannett Broadcasting), has a line-up comprising a mix of true crime and public service programming. It currently acquires 1,600 hours of content a year from the likes of A+E Networks and National Geographic, the latter providing Justice with off-cable rights to Alaska State Troopers.

Schiffman is now looking to expand Justice’s original production output of more than 60 hours a year, which includes Inside the Mind of a Serial Killer and Killing Spree, as well as segments hosted by TV personality John Walsh.

“[Head of programming] John Ford and I have got to find the right deal, and we are now looking to enter coproduction arrangements,” Schiffman says. “This could potentially be a U.S. cable channel but we need to find something where there are enough players that it can be affordable.”

He doesn’t’ rule out a collaboration with European broadcasters either. “The crime, history, and investigation genres travel very well internationally. There are certain things you have to Americanize and collaborate closely but we would definitely look at this if someone were looking for some sort of additional money for a U.S. coproduction partner.”

Indeed, true crime programming is in popular demand, with Netflix documentary Making a Murderer and HBO’s The Jinx spearheading a rebirth of the genre. But with Justice being an FTA channel, does Schiffman feel the heat from SVOD services and cablenets expanding in this space?

“The interaction with consumers in the FTA world is completely different, they are completely different viewers,” he replies. “There are around 60 to 70 million FTA homes in the U.S. and those people tend not to watch a lot of cable, so the crossover is much more modest.”

Meanwhile, Schiffman believes the U.S. multicast space has a “very strong” future but admits there will always be hurdles to clear. “The multicast segment has really grown up very fast – there are about 30 very strong, very viable, successful networks,” he says.

“They are well branded, with good programming and management teams. Sinclair Television, for example, has launched Comet with MGM Television; Katz Broadcasting has four networks; FremantleMedia has game show channel Buzzr. These are just some off the top of my head.

“But because multicast networks are FTA, there are no subscription fees, so the revenues of these channels are much more modest. To make these businesses more viable you really have to try to keep your costs low, while at the same time have compelling content that defines your channel.”

In Miami this week, Schiffman, along with former Discovery exec Ford, will have an eye on bringing in more of this programming, with several meetings with broadcasters and producers lined up. It should make for a happy second birthday for a channel that continues to expand in the American public’s consciousness.

This article was originally published in the NATPE Daily. Read more from NATPE Daily Day 2.