Reorder in the Court!Divorce Court turns 10 this fall 8/08/2008 08:00:00 PM Eastern
Court shows are one of syndication's strongest genres as well as one of the least expensive to produce, unless the show is long-running and features a venerable judge, such as Judge Judy's Judy Sheindlin. But it's also a genre that steadfastly sticks to a stodgy format that some producers are looking to tweak.
“The first ever court show was Divorce Court, which has been on and off the air in some form or another tracing back to 1957,” says Ritch Colbert, co-principal of Program Partners, which will premiere Family Court with Judge Penny in syndication this fall. “Then came People's Court with Judge Joseph Wapner in 1981.
“That created the first major shift in the genre, introducing the adjudication of small claims. Every court show since People's Court has been a pretender to the People's Court throne. Viewers now have an expectation that court shows will follow a fairly strict formulaic construct.”
For the most part, they do. Says Mark Koberg, executive producer of Twentieth's Divorce Court: “One of the things we hear over and over again is that Divorce Court is great because it's the same thing day after day. The other side of that coin is that Divorce Court is the same day after day. So we're not going to go too far from our format but we are going to offer a variation on what people have been seeing.”
Divorce Court has lasted much longer than some of the marriages it helps get undone: Its tenth season begins this fall in its third iteration with Judge Lynn Toler and it is adding two new segments. One is called “Before the Vows” and it features Toler counseling engaged couples before they head down the aisle. The couples in question will have their relationships scrutinized from all angles. Toler will talk to the would-be brides' and grooms' families, and submit them to lie-detector tests and compatibility quizzes.
Toler isn't a licensed counselor, but “Who knows better than someone who sees marriages fall apart on a daily basis?” asks Koberg.
Divorce Court also is going to feature segments called “Save My Marriage,” looking at couples who don't want to get divorced but who are having serious problems. “These segments have evolved organically within the court proceedings over the years,” says Koberg. “With these couples, Lynn determines that there's nothing really 'divorceable' going on so she gives them work assignments and checks back in with them later to see whether they've been able to make the marriage work.”
“Divorce Court always has been more about the relationship and what they are going through than what they are in court over,” says Koberg. “It's about real people with real problems that everyone can relate to.”
It's daytime audiences' desire to relate to what they watch that Program Partners' Colbert is relying on for Family Court, which premieres in September.
“Family Court introduces a dynamic that is fairly unique,” says Colbert. “Not only do we bring these conflicts to resolution but to reconciliation. That's a significant departure.”
Looking ahead, Litton Entertainment's Street Court—due out in fall 2009—is taking a more radical approach. In the show, former Brooklyn District Attorney Michael Mazzariello, aka Judge Mazz, is like a tough-talking Steve Wilkos of court, mediating disputes between people where they happen, whether that's in a garage or a home or a store. Mazz is dispensing with the desk and the black robe to take on people's issues right where they live and work.
“Street Court comfortably progresses an already successful genre,” says Dave Morgan, president and CEO of Litton Entertainment, who notes that many stations rely on many hours of court shows each day. “We must preserve the court genre or it could go the way of the relationship genre. And if stations lose the ratings they have with court [shows], it could be disastrous for the industry as a whole.”