Court Gets More Crowded

Low costs, long runs keep genre robust

Twentieth Television is auditioning four judges for a new show, the latest sign that the court genre is still going strong. With nine court shows currently on the syndicated docket, Twentieth is testing the waters for at least one more.

The same goes for Sony, which is developing a program for Judge David Young. “We’re still big on court,” says Sony Pictures Television President of Distribution John Weiser. “The costs are controlled, repeatability is high, and the genre has longevity.”

But with the court scene increasingly crowded, none of the seven returning shows are up year-over-year in household ratings this season. Syndication insiders point out that, besides the packed field diluting the audience, the addition of two rookies, Twentieth’s Cristina’s Court and Sony’s Judge Maria Lopez, means some veterans have lost extra airings that often boosted numbers.

Overall, ratings for the segment continue to trend up. The latest May sweeps numbers for court were up 6% in households and 11% in the important women 25-54 demographic from three years ago. “It’s working,” says Weiser. “It’s the only genre that’s up double digits over a multiyear track in the key currency of women 25-54. The other equally populated genres are flat or down.”

And with audiences still buying into the genre, the fact that, without Judge Judy-type talent, production costs often fall below $200,000 per week means court remains a profitable play. Syndicators also find that two judges are better than one. Having multiple court shows on a slate presents opportunities for backroom efficiencies, from case analysis to booking to production facilities. Twentieth, for one, shoots both Judge Alex and Cristina’s Court out of KRIV Houston, a Fox owned-and-operated station.

“It definitely helps the economic model,” says Weiser. “It might be the only genre where those efficiencies come into play.”

As new entries step into the segment, programming executives agree that the personality and credibility of the judge are crucial to a show’s success. Weiser says Young’s personality has tested well and, as a veteran Miami Circuit Court judge, he has the background, too.

“We want a real-life judge presiding over the court,” Weiser says, “not a personality or someone who years ago was a judge and now is coming out of retirement to take an acting role.”

Sony is thinking long term for Young. Of the nine court shows on-air, six have been on for at least seven years. Twentieth’s Judge Alex entered the fray last season; Cristina and Lopez debuted last month.

While court tends to do well in Hispanic demos, Weiser believes a Hispanic judge is not a necessity, even though Sony’s entrant this fall does feature Maria Lopez. However, Weiser says that it wouldn’t have made any difference if Lopez were not Latina: “She had the personality to pull it off.”

Although the person banging the gavel does matter to audiences, a research study commissioned by Sony found that the genre remains hot also because viewers like the closed-ended nature of a court show, with conflict and resolution in each episode. Viewers also say they enjoy learning law tidbits.

“It’s such a viable space that we will keep looking at it,” says Paul Buccieri, president of programming for Twentieth, whose Cristina ratings rank third out of the seven rookie first-run shows in syndication. “We hope there’s no end in sight.”