Disorder in the Court Genre

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With the January National Association of Television Program Executives’ show-buying conference looming, a surprising ratings trend in syndicated TV has developed recently that could have major consequences for syndication studios when they gather in Las Vegas. The once-sizzling court genre has suddenly cooled—a disconcerting development for buyers who planned on putting their first-run bets for next fall on nearly a dozen new and returning court shows.

In the past, the genre has been a safe wager in the cyclical syndication business, considering that shows like Judge Judy have made it one of the hottest program categories for a decade. Court programs boast a 50% survival rate, versus about 20% for all first-run syndicated shows. Moreover, last season—and early this fall—most TV judges saw their ratings climb from the previous year.

But then something changed. Since the week of Oct. 14, more court shows have wound up in the losing column each week, in terms of year-to-year household ratings, than have posted gains. During the most recent  week for which Nielsen ratings were available (ended Nov. 13), five court shows, including category leader Judge Judy—which nonetheless posted a season-high number—saw their ratings drop. Only one showed improvement.

Could it be a case of oversaturation? Not likely. There are seven court shows now on the air, the same number as last year and fewer than in some recent years. We asked a senior studio researcher for his analysis. He blames ill-advised attempts by established court shows to woo younger demos with more gimmicks, such as courtroom demonstrations and reports from the field. The genre’s core viewers, largely the 50-plus audience, were not pleased.

“They want their old court shows,” he says. “These older people are not just buying into this new style.”

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