Judge Judith Sheindlin wasted no time picking up the phone to call the studio when she got wind that Joseph A. Wapner, the legendary People's Court judge, would leave his TV bench in 1993.
“She got the receptionist,” says Randy Douthit, director and one of two executive producers of the top-rated court show, Paramount Domestic Television's Judge Judy. “And she said, 'You know, if he doesn't want to do this show anymore, I can do it.' And the receptionist said, 'Are you crazy, lady?'”
Like everyone else, the receptionist underestimated Sheindlin, a Brooklyn, N.Y., native whose show enters its 10th season Sept. 12.
The program has created an estimated $1 billion-plus industry, with the tough-talking Sheindlin responsible for more than half of that. Leading the court category every year, Judy has spurred the hottest genre in syndication, replacing talk as the dominant force in daytime.
A dozen other judge shows (the 13th, Twentieth TV's Judge Alex, arrives next week) have followed Judy in the past decade. Add to that at least four more in development for fall 2006, plus reruns of Twentieth's cancelled Texas Justice.
So far, none have come close to surpassing Judge Judy. Sheindlin, who once considered careers as a comedienne and a ballerina, is a lawyer, judge and author. She has penned three books that made the New York Times Best-Seller List: Don't Pee on My Leg and Tell Me It's Raining: America's Toughest Family Court Judge Speaks Out; Beauty Fades, Dumb Is Forever; and Keep It Simple Stupid: You're Smarter Than You Look.
“Flattery is a very nice thing when you are copied,” Sheindlin says of the Judge Judy wannabes. “That makes you feel good.”
With a 1 rating serving as the threshold for daytime syndication success these days, the court genre is thriving. From September 2004 to July 2005, the lowest-rated court show, Sony's Judge Hatchett, averaged a 2.6 gross average audience (GAA) rating (the measurement used by advertisers). Judy, meanwhile, was at a 7.5, tops among all first-run shows with multiple runs.
Studios have rediscovered the court genre as a profitable franchise: Courtroom shows have a 50% survival rate; in contrast, just 25% of all first-run syndicated shows introduced last season made it to a second. Moreover, court TV is one of the cheapest syndicated genres to produce and distribute (estimated at $400,000 per week before talent and producer salaries, compared with entertainment newsmagazines, for example, which can approach $1 million a week).
Paramount, Warner Bros. and Twentieth TV—and now Sony, which has another court project in development for fall 2006 with Judge Maria Lopez—spread out their show costs, amortizing them in a variety of areas. For example, 60 freelance researchers work for both Judge Judy and fellow Paramount show Judge Joe Brown, prowling court files for prospective cases. Executive producer Timothy Regler, who has been with Judy from the beginning, notes that some of the litigants who make for the best TV seem to come from Florida and Texas.
Double Daytime's Usual CPM
Reports have pegged Paramount's annual profit on Sheindlin's show at $40 million to $50 million from license fees and barter ad revenue, far above most of the pack. With 260 episodes per year primarily double-run in early fringe, the time period leading up to local evening newscasts, Judy generates costs per thousand viewers (CPMs) twice those typical of daytime. That's down from the heady days when the show took in as much as $70 million a year but still substantial for a show about to pass the decade mark with a high quotient of viewers age 50-plus.
Sheindlin's salary undoubtedly has impacted profits, having multiplied from roughly $500,000-$800,000 per year, standard for other TV judges, to a reported $30 million-$35 million in a new two-year deal starting in 2006—a $5 million yearly hike from her previous contract. Concurrently, her show has been renewed through 2008 in more than 90% of the country.
It is a scenario that seemed unimaginable in 1993. The People's Court and the imitators it had spawned were disappearing, as the public's appetite turned toward Oprah Winfrey's brand of daytime talk.
Two years later, following O.J. Simpson's murder trial, court was back in vogue. But Sheindlin kept striking out until she hooked up with the most unlikely of partners, Spelling's fledgling Big Ticket Television, which was geared toward comedies, dramas and TV movies.
Producer Larry Lyttle, who ran Big Ticket, had never done a “reality” show. But after meeting with Sheindlin and her agent, Richard Lawrence, he guaranteed a pilot (dubbed Hot Bench) if Sheindlin would commit by 9 the next morning. Reflecting Sheindlin's trademark toughness, Lawrence called with a yes at 8:58 a.m.
By the time the diminutive judge with the big personality arrived on the scene in September 1996, under the show name of Judge Judy, viewers were on court overload from an avalanche of sensational newsmagazine trial stories.
Judy was different, though, transforming court into a new type of comedy genre for daytime, a “dramedy” all about the personality of the judge and the wackiness of the litigants. The daytime audience, composed 75% of women, liked what it saw. Judy and the other court shows provide entertainment more than information, for which viewers generally tune into talk TV. Research shows that the primary reason women watch daytime TV, outside of getting news and information, is to laugh and escape their complicated lives.
Says Greg Meidel, president of programming, Paramount Domestic Television, “Many times, she is very funny and very entertaining, but always compelling.”
Sheindlin, however, thinks the show's success stems from frustration with the court system. Viewers, she says, feel “comfortable that, at the end of the day, most of the time the right thing has happened.”
Unlike talk, which can be “stunted” during sweeps with big-name guests like an exuberant Tom Cruise on The Oprah Winfrey Show, court shows are considered consistent year-round “bread-and-butter” fare.
Borrowing successful talk elements, Sheindlin and Douthit prefer cases that somehow involve relationships. The judge and her production team knock out five cases each day on the 52 taping days per year. She insists on keeping regular court hours.
At Tribune's Los Angeles lot this summer (the show breaks from mid July through August, when people seem more interested in taking vacations than in filing lawsuits), Sheindlin can be heard screaming at a woman trying to bilk her mother out of $5,000, “Don't play with me!”
Sheindlin's zingers continue to fly throughout the day, punctuated by an occasional “shush.” A sample: “I don't give a rat's behind about your car payment!” “The bank's not interested in your daughter who vomits in the car!” “Look, Miss Nothing Is My Fault or My Responsibility...!”
The judge generally sees a only half-page complaint and a defense response prior to a taping, sometimes only moments before. “Some of my colleagues on the television bench get briefed beforehand on the case,” she remarks between tapings. “I'm totally disinterested in what anybody else has to say.”
Sheindlin's outspoken ways earned her a 60 Minutes profile in 1993, which she used as an entrée into Hollywood. As a New York Family Court judge, she had stirred controversy with her strong views, including the need for cameras in courtrooms to prevent judicial abuses.
After landing on TV, she quickly won over viewers despite feeling shaky those first six months. But once she gained her footing, she put her foot down, dishing out admonishments with her rulings.
She wanted the courtroom to be a serious environment, not entirely theater. She grimaces remembering how someone came in dressed as Mr. Tomato the first year. “I said, 'I don't need show-and-tell on the desk.'” The tomato was canned.
Sheindlin also successfully fought off attempts to have the “backstory” of litigants told on the show. And when she was commanded to look into one of the six cameras on the set, she replied, “I'm not going to look at any camera. You follow me.”
And everybody did. Warner Bros. brought back an updated version of People's Court in the 1997-98 season with former New York Mayor Ed Koch, who in 1999 was replaced by Sheindlin's husband of nearly 30 years, Jerry Sheindlin, also a retired judge. But even her husband couldn't keep up with her in the ratings, lasting only two seasons, and was subsequently replaced by Judge Marilyn Milian in 2001.
During the 1998-99 season, when Judy's ratings more than doubled to 5.6, two more court shows appeared: Judge Mills Lane (lasting four seasons) and then-Big Ticket's Judge Joe Brown. The latter has become the No. 2 court show in the genre behind Judy.
A year later, Judy's ratings exploded, peaking at a 9.3 rating just as Warner Bros.' Judge Mathis and Twentieth TV's Divorce Court entered the fray.
For Paramount, which inherited Judy and Joe when Viacom rolled Big Ticket into Paramount in June 1999, weekly license fees for Sheindlin's show shot up more than eightfold, from the low six figures to nearly $2 million, with improved ratings and better stations and time periods.
“We had bidding wars in every market,” recalls Paramount Domestic Tele­vision President John Nogawski.
Judy's runaway success prompted a free-for-all in 2000-01. Of the five court-themed shows debuting that fall—Power of Attorney, Arrest & Trial, Curtis Court, Moral Court and Judge Hatchett—only Hatchett survived.
They all emerged just as Judy's ratings had begun to slip, along with all of daytime television, which was hard hit by cable-related audience fragmentation. Other suppliers backed off, but Twentieth TV kept going, eventually introducing Texas Justice and now Judge Alex as cheap daytime fare. The Fox stations have used Judy and Joe Brown as lead-ins for Twentieth court shows in many top markets.
After four years of decline, Judy finally reversed the downward trend this season, rebounding from a 7.1 rating in 2003-04 to a 7.5.
“Very few shows that run in early fringe can say they beat last year's numbers,” says Meidel. “We will for this year.”
The syndicator's corporate family stepped in this season to help boost Judy's overall national numbers. Joe Ahern, general manager of sibling WBBM Chicago, saw triple-digit increases by adding two runs, airing four episodes from 2 to 4 p.m. The station had long suffered in the first hour, but he says it has become a competitive powerhouse since Paramount agreed to the two extra Judy segments.
With that kind of success, Meidel declares, “There is no reason why Judy shouldn't be on the air for another 10 years.”