Judge Judy

How popular culture gets popular.
May 27 2005 12:03 PM

Judge Judy

The most-watched court show for 452 straight weeks.

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Judge Judy's dominance is in many ways dependent on the plum time slot she snagged early on. But it helps that her competitors haven't come close to matching her ratings. Sheindlin's ornery personality probably has something to do with this, of course, but the real key to the show's triumph may lie in its simplicity.

Judge Judy's competitors have often tried to differentiate themselves by adding bells and whistles, to poor effect. The short-lived Power of Attorney, for example, invited such legal superstars as Marcia Clark and Christopher Darden to represent the litigants. We the Jury placed the decision in the hands of an audience panel. There was even a show called Moral Court, in which a former talk-show host clad in black judicial robes decided such pressing cases as whether a young child should be told the truth about Santa Claus.

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Talk about missing the point. Court-show viewers don't seem to want moral conundrums or technical wrinkles. They love Sheindlin's show because she offers them a fantasy of how they'd like the justice system to operate—swiftly, and without procedural mishaps or uppity lawyers. They get to see wrongdoers publicly humiliated by a strong authority figure. There is no uncertainty after Sheindlin renders her verdict and bounds off the bench, and there are certainly no lengthy appeals.

Brendan I. Koerner is a contributing editor at Wired and a columnist for Gizmodo. His first book, Now the Hell Will Start, is out now.