PROVIDENCE, R.I. — The cameras are rolling as a woman explains her reason for driving too fast: her dog was at home with a toothache. Another man tells the judge he didn't know he was speeding because his new shoes were too tight.
This is no bad courtroom sitcom; this is "Caught in Providence."
These everyday antics in Providence Municipal Court make for a reality TV show with truly local appeal, where anyone from your next-door neighbor to the former governor could be the star.
"You could never script the excuses that are here before this court," says Chief Municipal Court Judge Frank Caprio, the court's witty but no-nonsense presiding justice.
The program started as a local cable enterprise then began airing on the local ABC affiliate, WLNE-TV, about two years ago, holding its own against shows such as "Saturday Night Live" and "Live With Regis and Kelly."
Airing six days a week, the show features Caprio and everyday citizens who are defending parking violations, disorderly conduct charges, or other city crimes. Defendants are warned they could be on television, and anyone who objects is left out of the broadcast.
Most don't object. In fact, some people even wear a shirt with a company logo on it, said Joseph Caprio, the show's producer and judge's brother.
"They figure for a $15 ticket, they could get some free advertising out if it," he said.
The show has become popular enough for the local station to peddle "Caught in Providence" hats and T-shirts.
While other TV markets may broadcast court proceedings on cable access stations, shows such as "Caught in Providence" are rare for network affiliates, said Marc Berman, a television analyst for MediaWeek, a national trade publication.
"It obviously will not play outside the market … but if you're interested in community affairs and you want to be entertained, it's very clever," he said.
"People feel like it's just a slice of life right out of our hometown," WLNE-TV general manager Kingsley Kelley said.
Judge Caprio is much of the reason for the show's success.
In one episode, a woman became enamored with the smiling, 65-year-old judge.
"I just want to say, you are very handsome!" she said after being ordered to pay her parking tickets.
"You know what? If you had said that a few minutes ago, you might have gotten away with all these tickets!" Caprio joked.
And even former Gov. Bruce Sundlun appeared on behalf of his wife's ex-husband, who was issued a ticket in error.
While Caprio's candor has helped educate citizens about the court system, viewer education sometimes takes on a life of its own. After one man entered a plea of "guilty with an explanation," the phrase spread. Now, many people enter that plea.
"In the judicial system, there is no 'guilty with an explanation,"' Caprio said, laughing. "It's a unique plea before the Providence Municipal Court."
Elected to the court in 1985, Caprio knows sometimes justice needs to be flexible, a lesson he learned as a child of poor Italian immigrants. When Caprio was 9, he would wake up at 4 a.m. to help his father make dairy deliveries — even to families who couldn't pay.
Caprio said his father "would take money out of his pocket and tell the company, 'They made a payment."'
That influence is evident on "Caught in Providence." Caprio will often waive penalties or offer payment plans for offenders with children. If kids are in the courtroom, he'll call them up to the bench and let them sit with him as he adjudicates their parents' cases.
Joseph Caprio had been videotaping other events for the city when he came up with the idea of taping his brother's court proceedings. The judge agreed to try it as an experiment.
"The first day we put it on, we got 30 messages," Joseph Caprio recalled. "The next day we got 60. We were soon getting 800 messages a week."
About two years ago, he was approached by an advertising firm and WLNE, which was looking for programming options. They asked him if he could edit the show into half-hour segments.
And now, WLNE's Kelley observes, "It's kind of a cult classic."
"Caught in Providence" first appeared in October 2000 at 11:30 p.m., opposite "Saturday Night Live." It moved to 7:30 p.m. Saturday last fall, and now has become a late-morning staple during the week, replacing "Iyanla" after the Disney syndicated program was canceled.
"Frankly, the ratings have been every bit as good as that national Disney show that we've replaced," Kelley said.
On the Net:
ABC6 News Web site: http://www.abc6.com