The Puppet’s Court

When you come across something like The Puppet’s Court, you’re probably thinking this must be one of those first-run syndicated strips that was being pitched at the recent NATPE gathering in Miami back in January.

But believe it or not, The Puppet’s Court was actually a newscast segment earlier this year on a local TV station in Cleveland – with puppets re-enacting scenes from a corruption trial. Yes, you heard me!

Cue Mr. Moose and the ping-pong balls.

Since no TV station can use cameras in a federal courtrooms, CBS affiliate WOIO-TV, a station owned by Montgomery, Ala.-based Raycom Media, decided to illustrate the day’s happenings at the public corruption trial of former Cuyahoga County Commissioner Jimmy Dimora – by using puppets. Yes, puppets. (And remember, Chicago is not the only place where corruption happens.)

At the end of the station’s newscasts during the trial, WOIO aired The Puppet’s Court segments, which if course is a take off on the long-running syndicated series The People’s Court. Instead of the traditional sketch artist positioned in the courtroom like other stations, WOIO had someone take notes during the trial and worked with local puppeteer company Natural Bridges to tape the one-to-two minute segments, transmitting the testimony and the wiretapped phone calls. Included in the court testimony were descriptions of gambling junkets to Las Vegas and rendezvous with plenty of prostitutes.

The Muppet Show this ain’t.

When the trial wrapped up after 28 long days, Dimora was found guilty on 32 out of 33 counts and is likely to be sentenced to The Big House for a very long time (how bizarre was this trial? Dimora’s defense lawyer mistakenly told the jury during closing arguments that his client should be found guilty on every count. Oops…)

As expected, reaction was mixed – many viewers loved it… others hated it (the associate professor of journalism at the University of Missouri isn’t a fan). However, the segment did win kudos from the RTDNA, as it states “The Puppet’s Court wasn’t produced just as a parody piece; but to point out how absurd that cameras and other recording devices are allowed in federal court.” (To see WOIO’s hilarious Puppet Court’s segments, click here, here [for Day 10] and here.)

Station officials defended the segments, saying this is just one of the ways WOIO is covering the trial.

Illinois – a state ranked third in corruption in a recent study – does not allow cameras in any courtrooms – one of the last states in the Union to have such a ban.

Such experimentation isn’t new at WOIO – the station is run by former WBBM-TV general manager Bill Applegate, who embraces a “tabloid” approach to news (which he was criticized a plenty of in Chicago.) In 2004, reporter Sharon Reed (who was let go from WOIO a few months ago) posed nude for a story on the station. In 2006, the Cleveland Browns’ owner’s sister was featured on a 911 tape related to the drowning on his niece, which he claimed was an invasion of the family’s privacy. As a result, the Browns terminated their relationship with WOIO.

As for why they need to go for the tabloid approach, they have to – the station’s newscasts has been in fourth place since their inception in 1994, when WOIO was forced to dump Fox and joined CBS thanks to the Fox-New World deal (WJW became the Fox affiliate after 40 years with CBS.)

So, what would happen if a local station would try The Puppet’s Court in Chicago? We actually might find out as Cook County board member William Beavers was indicted recently in the corruption capital of America. Look for Garfield Goose to play John Daley, Cuddly Dudley to play U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald, and Kukla, Fran, and Ollie to make up the jury, and have the segments hosted locally by WGN-TV’s Night Cap host Frank Woolanski. Break out the Dr. Peppers!

And who gets to play William Beavers? An Angry Beaver puppet, of course.

Since Illinois still does not allow cameras in the courtrooms – which is a backwards idea in a backwards state – why can’t a local station hold our own Puppet Court? Come on, it’s a great idea!

Since local news is an embarrassment for the most part anyway, I say go for it – what do they have to lose? Can’t wait to see the Mancow puppet – he would be funnier than the real thing and maybe we can ship him to Cleveland like we did former WCKG morning personality Rover.