Name almost any sensational or gruesome trial of the last 20 years, and chances are that Mike Butler covered it.
O.J. Simpson. Michael Jackson. Jeffrey Dahmer. Scott Peterson. Lorena Bobbitt. Mike brought these cases and many more into American living rooms as a pioneering director for Court TV.
Last year he took this wealth of experience to Morristown High School, where his challenge is to prepare students for a swiftly changing broadcast world that already differs from the one where he made his mark.
“The number one thing I’m trying to instill in these kids is to be creative,” said Mike, a 53-year-old Hillside native who lives in Berkeley Heights with his wife—also a TV producer—and their daughter.
After Court TV became truTV and moved from New York to Atlanta, Mike was sent packing in 2009. Eighteen years of broadcasting brutal cases left him feeling burned out. Teaching was a welcome tonic, he said.
Mike oversees student radio station WJSV—now marking its 40th anniversary at Morristown High—along with a student TV operation that shoots sporting events and school news programs.
As a broadcasting teacher, he stresses the use of portable cameras and editing software geared for internet video.
“Coming from the real TV world, I don’t want to tell them to do studio television when I know that’s going to be a dead thing,” Mike said during an interview in the school’s bright green TV studio.
(The color is for the “green screen” effect, enabling background video to be superimposed against a green backdrop.)
Even if studio TV is on the way out, however, its production values are worth carrying forward, Mike contends. Just because YouTube is loaded with jittery shots and jarring cuts spawned by MTV, he said, “that doesn’t necessarily mean (students) have to be sloppy.”
Along those lines, Mike also has started requiring student deejays to read news during their WJSV shows, “to make it a more participatory sport for them.”
While radio never will match the halcyon days of rock station WNEW-FM in the ’70s, he said, he is pretty sure radio will survive as a purveyor of sports and news.
What most troubles him about TV is a de-emphasis of technical standards by the Federal Communications Commission. Today’s blurry, grainy amateur videos never would have been allowed on the air years ago, he said.
Stations no longer have much incentive to hire great camera people. Students may land broadcast jobs out of college, he said, “but will they have a career there?”
A POKE AT PINSTRIPES
With a little luck and a stiffer breeze, Mike might have landed in front of cameras instead of behind them, as a first baseman for the New York Yankees.
Mike had a tryout in 1976, while he was a freshman at Seton Hall. The lefty drove some balls to the warning track at Yankee Stadium but the Bombers never called back.
So he completed his communications degree and parlayed an internship at Suburban Cablevision into a nine-year gig. Directing everything from mayors’ programs to parades and sports shows, he worked alongside people who would become household names in New York TV sports – names like Bruce Beck (WNBC), Bob Ley (ESPN) and Matt Loughlin (radio voice of the Devils).
“It was like a college atmosphere and you did everything, and that was the beauty of the thing,” recounted Mike, who also has freelanced for MSG SportsDesk. “You may have been calling the game, but you also were breaking down cables at the end of the game. It was wonderful.”
When a friend told him about a new program called Court TV, he thought it was a basketball show.
Court TV was the brainchild of legal writer Steven Brill, who decreed that coverage must be neutral, with no autopsy photos. Cameras in courtrooms were rare in the early ’90s; it took considerable negotiating to obtain permission, Mike said.
Who was the baddest bad guy that he covered?
“Our crew despised Scott Peterson,” Mike said. “The thought of killing an unborn child and cheating on his wife…he was a real sleazeball.”
He said the chaos of the O.J. Simpson trial was rivaled by the “circus” surrounding the Michael Jackson case.
“Justice is not always fair,” Mike observed over the years. “If you had Johnnie Cochran or Alan Dershowitz or Roy Black, you would get better results than with a public defender.”
After the Simpson trial, Mike worked on a talk show with Johnnie Cochran, the lawyer who successfully defended the football legend against charges that he murdered his ex-wife.
“He was one of the nicest guys I worked with in the business,” Mike said of the late attorney. “He just wanted to chill out from the Simpson case.”
A ratings bonanza, the Simpson trial ultimately damaged Court TV, Mike said.
“People perceived the incompetence of the judge, and they didn’t want to see it anymore. People were acting for the cameras… there was a backlash. People got fed up with it.”
Yet on balance, he thinks Court TV provided a valuable service.
“Court TV opened the eyes of this country to what it’s like” in court, Mike said. “You didn’t have to guess anymore.”