Back in the mid-’90s, when game shows had finally fallen out of favor and the talk show wars had devastated Montel, Maury and Sally Jesse Raphael, leaving Oprah on the Iron Throne, there was one mainstay for your middle-aged aunts, grandmas and housewives to get their daytime TV drama fix: Court TV.
Blowing up with wall-to-wall coverage of the O.J. trial, the Menendez brothers, and way too much Anna Nicole-Smith, the channel became a pop cultural mainstay during its original run from 1991 to 2008. Court TV launched the careers of Greta Van Susteren and Nancy Grace, but with an audience that was 70 percent white women in their late 30s and 50s, it wasn’t always the most compelling programming for black audiences. Now, it looks like all of that is about to change.
After an 11-year hiatus, Court TV relaunched on May 8th as a 24-hour cable network smack dab in the middle of Black Lives Matter, mass shootings, #MeToo and a much more diverse viewing audience. How will the new network fare in a time when doubts about our criminal justice system run as high as Bill Cosby’s legal bills? The channel’s star-in-the-making, morning anchor Yodit Tewolde, has the answer.
“I am a black anchor on a network that covers trials; it don’t get realer than that.” she said at the beginning of our conversation. Yodit Tewolde (pronounced YO-Deet, Te-WAL-de), who anchors the Court TV morning show from 9 a.m. to 12 p.m. ET, is not your traditional trial TV host. First, she’s the third black woman currently anchoring her own show on a 24-hour cable network, joining Harris Faulker on Fox News and Joy Reid on MSNBC. Next, she’s an Eritrean-American from Dallas who was active in her local community on criminal justice reform, drawing attention to the North African slave trade and helping black immigrants overcome President Trump’s racist and draconian immigration laws. So how did the millennial lawyer and activist make her way to to the anchor’s chair?
“I worked under the first black [district attorney] in Texas, Craig Watkins, from 2011 to 2014. That was a big deal for me. He brought in a whole lot of black prosecutors, more than any other D.A.” she said.
But her activism drove her to want to do more, and the confines of the D.A.’s office got to be too much. “They really encouraged you to establish your own style in the courtroom, which gave me a lot of confidence. But the only way I could talk about certain things that were meaningful to me was if I left the office.”
Tewolde left the D.A.’s office on a Friday and started her own firm the next Monday, on MLK Day, Jan. 20, 2014. She spent the next several years taking whatever cases she could and appearing on MSNBC, CNN and Fox News discussing some of the most brutal stories coming out of Texas—from Sandra Bland to the Dallas sniper shooting and, most recently, Botham Jean.
“The practice gave me the substance and credibility to be on air. It was important for me to keep my practice and the only way I would ever leave my practice in Dallas was for something big.”
Something big did come along in the form of Court TV’s much-hyped relaunch.
“Court TV released a press release on my birthday announcing their reboot and I remember thinking ‘I need to get on that network to do commentary.’ I never thought in a million years I’d be host of my own show.”
The process moved quickly, and Tewolde moved from Dallas to the new Court TV studios in Atlanta in less than 40 days. However, she was determined not to just be another stern face staring into the camera talking about why the latest celebrity hit-and-run incident needed coverage. The viewing audience for real trials and Court TV isn’t the same as it was 20 years ago, and she’s pushing to make that a part of her morning show.
“I said to [the network], ‘I want the [viewing] demographics to be different this time. I want black millennials to watch this time, because you have a black anchor. If you look at what black millennials are interested in, a lot of them are really involved in that kind of work [criminal justice] and are really interested in the cases that actually go to trial,’” she said. While Tewolde grew up watching Court TV and admits she loves watching trial coverage, she notes that “there’s a real distrust with the system and I appreciate coming into this network now and bringing a new perspective. Court TV has evolved; they aren’t replicating what they did before, because times have changed.”
So what kinds of shows and topics can we expect on her morning program in the coming months? The Harvey Weinstein trial, the Kellen Winslow Jr. rape trial, Kodak Black, R. Kelly and the Botham Jean trial—any place where cameras are allowed in the courtroom. However, Tewolde says to stay true to her community roots she’ll be rolling out weekend segments about police brutality, criminal justice reform and interviews she’s brokered with celebrity activists in the criminal justice reform space.
“There are people that really, really connect with the real-life drama. You have a lot of true crime stories, whether it’s on Netflix with Making of a Murderer or even with Snapped and For My Man. Those are re-enactments, but we have people in their lives in the moment. We’re doing it for transparency, for how things work, especially for communities of color that don’t trust the system. If you see a policeman that’s actually indicted and you get to watch it from start to finish, you may not like the verdict, but at least you know how we got there.”
Yodit Tewolde appears on Court TV from 9 a.m. to 12 p.m. ET, Monday-Friday. Check your local listings or live stream at Court TV.