Arias trial expensive for taxpayers, lucrative for media outlets

April 26, 2013

The capital murder trial of Jodi Arias has been nothing short of a spectacle marked by tawdry evidence, heated exchanges and a devoted audience, in court and at home. KJZZ’s Nick Blumberg reports that as the cost to taxpayers continues to grow, so too does ad revenue generated by the trial.

NICK BLUMBERG: Jodi Arias is charged with killing her boyfriend, Travis Alexander, in 2008. Her trial began early this year. Crowds have packed the courtroom to watch the proceedings. Just the other day, one regular spectator sold her seat in court for $200, but after a swift reprimand was forced to give the money back. If you can’t watch in person, you can catch every minute online.

HLN HLN's new program "HLN After Dark" covers the Arias trial nightly. (Photo by Nick Blumberg - KJZZ)

JUAN MARTINEZ: Did you lie to the detective, yes or no?


MARTINEZ: And did you lie to him on two occasions?

ARIAS: More than two, yes.

BLUMBERG: Arias is being prosecuted and defended by taxpayer-funded attorneys. As of Thursday, her defense has cost nearly $1.7 million. Taxpayers who want to see their money at work on both sides of the courtroom have been able to watch the case gavel-to-gavel, along with plenty of analysis.

HLN ANNOUNCER: Tonight, you be the judge. The bold accusation: Jodi is a sexual deviant.

BLUMBERG: The cable channel HLN covers the trial constantly. A spokeswoman declined to comment for this story, but in a press release, HLN said the Arias trial fueled big gains in its TV ratings. HLN’s website is drenched in Jodi Arias; the network cites a 500 percent increase in page views over last year, and it even used the trial to launch a new show.

HLN ANNOUNCER: From Studio 7, this is HLN After Dark.

BLUMBERG: Ratings and streaming numbers reached a peak in February.

NANCY GRACE: Bombshell tonight: Jodi Arias in her murder one trial takes the stand in her own defense.

BLUMBERG: It’s hardly just national outlets watching the case closely. ABC 15 and azcentral have both seen online video hits in the millions, mostly driven by Arias. Chris Kline is director of new media at ABC 15, which covers the story regularly on TV and carries the case live online. Kline says the audience has grown continuously.

KLINE: Our traffic has been coming in from around the planet, and it’s been incredible traffic, millions upon millions. But locally, it also remains the number one driver on court days.

BLUMBERG: Kline says streaming the case was an easy call. Dynamic players, frequent twists, and with Arizona very much in the spotlight, he sees it in part as a public service.

KLINE: This is Arizona tax dollars at work and we’ve gotta take action to make sure that as we cover this story, that the people of Arizona are being well-represented, and their money’s being spent well.

Brian Sheehan Brian Sheehan is an Associate Professor of Advertising at Syracuse University's S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications. (Photo courtesy of Brian Sheehan)

BRIAN SHEEHAN: It’s kind of like this is the Phoenix version of the O.J. Simpson case.

BLUMBERG: Brian Sheehan teaches advertising at Syracuse University’s Newhouse School of Public Communications.

SHEEHAN: A case like this is a godsend to a lot of people who are doing things online, because they can accumulate an audience over time, and if they have the right kind of metrics and analytics, they can start splitting that audience up and selling off each little piece of it.

BLUMBERG: Sheehan says media outlets would be wise to use the money they make on low-cost, high-yield stories like the Arias case to fund the more expensive parts of their news operations.

SHEEHAN: The right answer is to funnel this into new resources to make yourself more competitive for the future. The wrong answer is to say, "Hey, this’ll help me get my numbers up for the next quarter."

BLUMBERG: While outlets are reluctant to say exactly how much the Arias coverage has increased ad revenue, Sheehan says it’s a pretty basic principle.

SHEEHAN: If you deliver more eyeballs, the value of that time goes up. That’s one of the reason a lot of these cable channels, for example -- in many cases if they can latch onto a case like this, people get hooked, they get addicted to it.

BLUMBERG: That means outlets have a big incentive to keep the audience addicted. Once the case is over, the money goes away. The case is a hot commodity for less-traditional players, too. Pro- and anti-Jodi campaigns launched by devotees of the case take online donations. There’s a site selling artwork it says Arias drew behind bars; a portrait of Frank Sinatra reportedly sold for more than $1,000. For Kline, the more traditional stream of money generated by covering the case is welcome.

KLINE: Without question, the Arias trial shows us that there are huge revenue opportunities for news organizations to monetize these efforts and to help sustain our businesses.

BLUMBERG: Jodi Arias’s fate will soon be in the hands of the jury; but her face isn’t likely to disappear from TV or computer screens anytime soon.