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March Madness broadcaster TruTV's secret, O. J. Simpson–filled history

The most popular show on TruTV is Impractical Jokers, which, judging from this press photo, is about men pointing at you.
The most popular show on TruTV is Impractical Jokers, which, judging from this press photo, is about men pointing at you.
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

It's time for the NCAA basketball tournament, which can mean just one thing: millions of Americans are going to scramble to find a game they want to check out, only to mutter, "What the hell is TruTV?" You likely have heard of CBS, TNT, and TBS — the other three networks that air March Madness games — but TruTV? You probably last checked it out during last year's tournament.

We're here to help, America. Except if you just need to find the TruTV channel, because we can't do that unless we know your cable provider. And you probably have a better idea of that than we do. To find TruTV, go here.

For all other queries, read on.


Just some of the games that will be shown on TruTV this year. (

What is a TruTV?

TruTV is part of the Turner Broadcasting conglomerate, an organization that includes a bunch of other channels you might actually watch — channels like TNT, TBS, CNN, and Cartoon Network. It also contains channels you say you're going to watch more of, then don't, like Turner Classic Movies and Boomerang, a channel dedicated to animation history and lots of reruns of old Cartoon Network shows.

What's fascinating about TruTV is that many probably know it better under its former name, one that brought it to prominence in the '90s.

See, at one time, TruTV was Court TV.

Like with O. J. Simpson and stuff?

None other!

Court TV built its name in the celebrity trial–obsessed '90s, and it rose to fame thanks to the high-profile court cases of the era, particularly the murder trials of the Menendez brothers and O. J. Simpson.

The channel was formed when NBC and Time Warner merged two prior attempts at legal-news networks into one unholy amalgamation of, well, court TV. It originally just ran trial footage, with occasional analysis, but as the network grew in popularity, it branched out beyond that. Still, trials were always its bread and butter.

Eventually, NBC sold its shares of the network back to Time Warner, which in a corporate realignment shuffled Court TV under the Turner umbrella. Court TV has stayed there ever since.

So why isn't it Court TV anymore? It could still show basketball — get it?

Ha ha, yes.

The '90s were really the height of the celebrity trial. We'll occasionally have a Casey Anthony or Jodi Arias trial that briefly piques national attention, but for the most part, Americans no longer care about big trials like they used to.

You'll also note that the Anthony and Arias trials became mainstays of CNN Headline News, another Turner network, where Nancy Grace proved more of a draw than the trials themselves, in many cases.

With waning ratings for legal programming, Court TV was renamed TruTV in 2008. Though it continued to show some trial footage during the day, it turned over much of its time to schlocky reality shows and the like. For a while, those reality shows had a criminal justice bent, often focused on law enforcement officials. Consider, for instance, Speeders, which is Cops if Cops were entirely about police officers pulling people over for minor traffic offenses.

In time, though, Turner sold broadcasting rights for much of this law enforcement and legal programming off to other networks, most notably the minor cable channel the Justice Network.

What does TruTV show, then?

Truth be told, it's hard to tell what TruTV aims to be most of the time. Its most successful program is Impractical Jokers, a hidden-camera show about four guys who play pranks on unsuspecting bystanders. One of the four talks to the oblivious target, while the other three give the prankster things to say via a hidden microphone. It's fitfully funny, but it's also a pretty good indication that TruTV's general aesthetic is "shows that can be made for $5."

Here is how the TruTV website shows off the network's programming, complete with maybe the worst advertising slogan in television history: What the Fun Do We Have Here? No, TruTV. Unacceptable.


This is the worst slogan, TruTV. (

Just how does a channel like this end up showing a major sporting event?

Remember: TruTV is part of the Turner family, and the Turner family of networks has huge buying power and influence in the TV world. Turner has been moving into sports for a while now — it also airs NBA games and part of the baseball playoffs, among other events. Airing the NCAA tournament is a natural extension of that.

And it makes sense for the NCAA, too, which is just one of many sporting organizations splitting up its offerings to attract multiple buyers. (The NFL, for instance, has rights packages with NBC, Fox, CBS, and ESPN.) It makes significantly more money when it can sell to both Turner and CBS, instead of just CBS as it used to.

Indeed, the 14-year deal between the NCAA, CBS, and Turner, announced in 2010, also gives Turner the rights to broadcast the Final Four and championship game in alternating fashion with CBS, beginning in 2016. It's all a sign of cable's growing influence in the television world.

As to why Turner would put these games on TruTV, well, it doesn't have many other options. It airs games on TNT and TBS, its two general-interest channels, but its other networks are all aimed at very specific audiences. It's not going to boot the news to put games on CNN or boot classic movies to put games on TCM.

No, TruTV, which lacks a discernible audience, is the perfect home for the first two rounds of the tournament. Ironically, the network's weakness is the very reason it gets this one long weekend of good ratings every year.

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