Judge Judy

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

Judge Judy

The most-watched court show for 452 straight weeks.

Judy: judging all the way to the bank.
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Judy: judging all the way to the bank

For TV viewers who enjoy seeing bozos loudly castigated, Judge Judy is a reliable treat. Judge Judith Sheindlin is best known for her brusque handling of small-claims cases. (Typical ear-piercing interjection from the bench: "Baloney, sir!") But the petite Brooklyn native deserves equal renown for her mastery of the Nielsen ratings: Judge Judy has been the most-watched court show for 452 straight weeks—ever since its 1996 debut. Sheindlin's ratings are so high, in fact, that her salary for the show currently stands at $25 million per year—more than Dr. Phil's and Jerry Springer's salaries combined.

Why has Judge Judy constantly outperformed the likes of Judge Hatchett, Judge Mathis, and Judge Joe Brown? As the first court show to launch after the O.J. trial, Judge Judy capitalized on a renewed interest in legal showdowns. But it also benefited from the backing of producer Larry Lyttle, an Aaron Spelling disciple with good connections and smart ideas about how to reinvent the genre.

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Ersatz courtrooms have been a television fixture since the medium's earliest days, but they've often been mediocre. Pioneering shows—such as 1949's They Stand Accused and 1957's Traffic Court (sponsored by the Southern California Chevrolet Dealers Association)—simply re-enacted actual cases. It was the original People's Court, which starred the crotchety Judge Joseph Wapner and debuted in 1981, that brought televised litigation its first major innovation.

Judge Wapner was appealing because he decided real cases. In order to appear on People's Court, small-claims litigants abandoned their civil suits and agreed to accept Wapner's binding arbitration. Cash awards were paid by the show, which gave defendants who were bound to lose good reason to participate. Many Americans, the producers realized, will gladly accept a little public humiliation if it'll keep them from paying their ex-spouse's $1,197.86 car-repair bill.

The People's Court was a hit and spawned several imitators, but it ended its initial run in 1993, due to sagging ratings and Judge Wapner's advancing age. (The two concerns were not unrelated.) Many television executives figured the court-show format had run its cycle and that Oprah Winfrey was leading syndicated TV into a new talk-show age.

Then came O.J. As his murder trial was getting under way, Larry Lyttle was putting together a production company called Big Ticket Television. When O.J. hogged the front page throughout 1995, Lyttle realized that high-profile criminal cases would become the bread and butter of 24-hour news channels. He guessed—correctly—that such incessant coverage would feed the consumer appetite for court shows. As it turns out, there is a direct correlation between court-show viewership and the news coverage accorded a high-profile case. When the Kobe Bryant and Scott Peterson cases were getting the wall-to-wall treatment from CNN and Fox News last August, for example, Judge Judy enjoyed a 7 percent ratings bump.

So, Lyttle set out to create a court show that would offer as much conflict as The Jerry Springer Show (albeit with far more decorum). He figured viewers would crave a charismatic personality at the helm, so he hired the fiery Sheindlin, whom he'd spied in a 60 Minutes profile. Judge Wapner had a crusty charm, for sure, but Sheindlin has a more confrontational, authoritarian style. Wapner might reprimand a mendacious defendant with a stern shake of the head, but Sheindlin has no problem screaming, "Don't pee on my leg and tell me it's raining, sir!" (A catchphrase that is also the title of one of her best-selling books.)

Lyttle also quickened the pace and added some sex appeal. He eliminated, for example, the recess between the resting of the cases and the judge's decision; Sheindlin's verdicts come without warning, and the aggrieved parties' post-case comments are a 10-second flash of edited gripes, rather than the more extended interviews that People's Court "reporter" Doug Llewelyn offers. And the show's case scouts, who scour the nation's small-claims courts for suitable disputes, worked to attract younger, more outrageous litigants—Wapner, for example, never dealt with the consequences of a Minnesota girl fight between a pair of heavily pierced hussies. (For the record, the plaintiff won, in no small part because Sheindlin loudly objected to a defense witness's navel-baring outfit.)

Judge Judy's success can also be attributed to media consolidation. Big Ticket was a division of Spelling Entertainment, which in turn was part of the Paramount Television Group, which is owned by Viacom, which owns several dozen TV stations. So, the show had little trouble getting "clearance," TV industry lingo for enough distribution commitments to justify production.

Thanks to Lyttle's innovations and connections, the show was an overnight hit, and it quickly earned the faith of local programmers. Judge Judy's early ratings were especially strong among female viewers between 25 and 54. That's also the core audience for early local newscasts, which begin at 5 p.m. in most markets. So programmers were inspired to schedule back-to-back episodes of Judge Judy in the 4-to-5 p.m. time period (called the "early fringe"), in the hopes that women would stick around for the day's crime and traffic reports. (This is also a popular slot for The Oprah Winfrey Show, for the same reasons.) The early fringe enjoys much higher viewership than other midday TV, so it's only natural that Judge Judy would regularly beat episodes of Judge Hatchett airing at 3, or Divorce Court at 1.

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.

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.

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