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Au pair trial coverage shows pitfalls of live television

November 10, 1997

NEW YORK (AP) _ Coverage of English au pair Louise Woodward’s reduced conviction and sentencing on Monday illustrated _ not once, but twice _ the perils of airing courtroom proceedings on live television.

It started with the botched effort to reveal through the Internet Judge Hiller Zobel’s decision changing Ms. Woodward’s murder conviction to manslaughter and ended with an ill-timed courtroom recess.

America’s three largest television networks interrupted regular programming twice _ three times on ABC _ for updates on the Woodward case. It showed how her trial had touched a nerve with an American public wrestling over questions of child care when both parents work.

``The story of this trial sneaked up on people,″ said Erik Sorenson, executive vice president of programming for Court TV. Woodward coverage drew the network’s highest ratings since the O.J. Simpson trial, he said.

ABC, CBS and NBC all presented special reports at 10 a.m. Monday, when Zobel’s decision was to be announced through the Internet. CNN, MSNBC, Court TV and Fox News Channel also covered it live.

After waiting in vain for the decision to appear _ it didn’t reach the Internet for about an hour due to a power outage _ television stations began breaking the news through old-fashioned reporting. A cellular phone tip from a courthouse source to NBC’s Wendy Murphy helped that network announce the decision by 10:09.

Networks returned at 3 p.m. for sentencing and were faced with one of their nightmares: indefinite time to kill.

Zobel heard sentencing recommendations from prosecution and defense attorneys and then, at 3:06 p.m., called a recess and retired to his chambers.

While everyone waited, television viewers were treated to pictures of lawyers and courtroom personnel milling about and Ms. Woodward’s attorney, Barry Scheck, sitting with his eyes closed. For variety, networks switched to a pub in Elton, England, Ms. Woodward’s hometown, for a shot of her supporters staring at a TV screen.

The televised water-treading ended 26 minutes later when Zobel returned to the courtroom with his decision.

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