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Move over, “Entertainment Tonight,” Rhode Island Municipal Court Judge Frank Caprio’s brand of courtroom drama is coming to prime time. With ratings that would make Neilsen proud, Caprio’s popular cable show about the day-to-day business of traffic court in Providence is about to bump the celebrity-based “ET” program from its coveted Saturday evening slot on ABC. “We had been running the half-hour traffic court show Saturday nights at 11:30 p.m. opposite ‘Saturday Night Live,’ and were surprised at the strong rating numbers it was pulling,” said Kingsley Kelley, general manager of WLNE-TV 6 in Providence. In fact, when the program went from Providence’s local cable station to its local ABC affiliate, WLNE, last fall, it was up against the Yankees-Mets World Series, and then the Bush-Gore election news special coverage, but still drew good viewership, Kelley said. “We decided to move the program to Saturday evening at 7:30 p.m. right after ‘Friends,’ replacing ‘Entertainment Tonight,’ ” he said, “ and everyone at the station is very excited about the ‘blockbuster’ hour of TV entertainment we have assembled.” When Caprio, who presides over traffic cases in the Providence Municipal Court, was approached by a relative in the cable business 10 years ago to put his courtroom on TV, he said, “No way.” “I thought the cameras would be distracting, and it would disrupt the normal flow of business,” said Caprio, whose job on the bench is only part-time. The rest of the time he works as a lawyer in his family’s law office in Providence. But now, 10 years later and a whopping success on both cable TV and on Channel 6, Caprio’s “Caught in Providence” has hit it big. Both Caprio’s brother, who videotapes other events for cable’s public access, and his wife convinced the judge that the public had an impression of the courtroom that was too stern, too structured, and not human enough, and showing his traffic court on TV would be informative and educational. The judge agreed under one condition: that there be no TV lights and no interruption of normal court proceedings. This included the use of only one camera to make sure that court patrons were not distracted. THE REAL THING “Unlike the ‘Judge Judy’ or ‘Divorce Court’ shows, these are real court cases in a real courtroom, unedited and unrehearsed. I don’t know what cases are coming up just as if the TV cameras weren’t there. Those other TV courtroom shows are for entertainment only,” said Caprio. Thanks to Rhode Island’s state cable interconnect, which allows public access shows to air on every single cable system in the state, the initial “Caught in Providence” shows were an instant success. The answering machine set up to handle comments on the show would fill up instantly. People would stop the judge on the street to discuss cases they had seen on TV. And most gratifying to the judge, people can see the compassionate side of the court. “It is especially rewarding to me to see kids in the courtroom. Many of the kids that come in are with poor or minority parents who have been mistreated or ignored by other government agencies, and I want to show them that the court is a place that protects their rights. I talk to the kids, explain what is happening, and make sure they leave my courtroom with a positive impression,” he said. As traffic court considers a new case every couple of minutes, the interest level of the viewer is high. According to Caprio, this would not be the case in criminal court, as the same case drags on for days or weeks, with much of the “action” being technical testimony or boring court procedural matters. The judge lets the assembled patrons know that the proceedings are being taped, and to ignore the camera. No one has ever stormed out in protest because they didn’t want to be on TV, but a few people have admitted they decided to fight a ticket in person rather than mail in their fine because they knew the camera was rolling, he said. Providence Municipal Court handles 280,000 cases a year, and generates more than $4 million in revenue — a tremendous amount for a court that does not handle criminal cases. But the object of the court is not to generate revenue, according to Caprio. “I have to be serious about enforcing the law when that is appropriate and assess the proper fine, but I think it’s important to be understanding of the human condition; after all, it’s only traffic court and we are dealing mostly with misdemeanors here,” he said. There is a lot of humor during the court proceedings, as people tend to use any excuse possible to wiggle out of a speeding ticket or parking violation. The judge has heard them all, and tries to strike a balance between enforcing the law and understanding people’s life situation. DIVERSE BACKGROUND Caprio credits his ability to relate to the diverse clientele of traffic court to his own background, which ranges from a boy getting up at 4 a.m. to help his father with his milk route to later going to law school at night while teaching at Hope High School. He has been practicing law for 35 years, all in Providence. “I practiced law in the trenches — no big corporate law job or high-prestige law firm for me. The tone of my courtroom is a summation of those experiences,” he said. “Caught in Providence” will continue to run on Rhode Island’s cable interconnect as well as its new time slot on Providence’s Channel 6 beginning in September. The state interconnect links all the cable systems statewide so everyone in Rhode Island can see programming put on by the state. The programming, which has included sporting events, the Bristol Fourth of July Parade, and other public access shows, is best known for its daily live coverage of the state legislature. Cox Cable, which is the state’s largest cable provider, now administers the two interconnect channels. Caprio’s traffic court airs daily on cable, usually one hour in the afternoon and one hour during the early morning hours. Specific hours are posted each day in the programming guide on the state interconnect channels. The court itself runs Monday through Friday, starting at 8 a.m. and running until the scheduled cases are finished. The target time for recess is noon, but sometimes the court stays in session until 2 p.m. The taped sessions lag several weeks behind the actual taping.

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