New Exec Producer Stirs Up Emotion on ‘Divorce Court’

Talk veteran Steinberg adds video packages, scraps marriage certificate requirement
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Twentieth's Divorce Court has hired a new executive producer, talk veteran Gail Steinberg, to bolster the show’s emotional appeal.

The move comes as ratings for the court genre overall are down 20% year-to-year. While Divorce Court is down just 7%, the show averages a relatively low 1.3 among households—second to last in the category.

Stephen Brown, Twentieth’s senior VP of programming and development, tells B&C he sees an opportunity to set the show apart from others in the genre: “None of the other court shows allow you to develop an emotional connection with the litigants like this one can. We need to build upon our strength.”

Among her first steps toward mining Divorce Court’s emotional potential, Steinberg is adding short video packages that will appear at the beginning of every episode to give viewers greater insight into the couple in question. “We are going about the storytelling in a different way to help the audience relate more closely and quickly to the guests,” says Steinberg, who replaces Mark Koberg.

“We’re going to go back to a time when the couple was happier, through photos, home videos and them on tape talking about their story. If we know that a couple has been married for 10 years and has three children, that ups the ante substantially.”

The show will remain centered around its judge, Lynn Toler, who hears a wide range of cases with humor and pathos, but several elements are being added or enhanced with the intention of better engaging viewers through relatable stories. To that end, Divorce Court is scrapping the requirement that couples appearing on the show have a marriage certificate.

“The problems [of domestic partners] are the same when they leave each other,” Toler says. “It’s still all about dissolving a marriage, just without that piece of paper. We’ve had to evolve to encompass what’s happening in the world. A lot of people are shacking up.”

That change will likely open the show up to include more gay couples, who have appeared on the show in the past only if they had a marriage certificate because their state allowed civil unions.

Steinberg will draw on a long career in talk shows in her new role. In 1993, she and Garth Ancier co-created Sony’s Ricki Lake, which went off the air in 2003 (and now might make a comeback with a new distributor). Since then, Steinberg has worked on such shows as Warner Bros.’ Sharon Osbourne, TruTV’s Star Jones and Food Network’s Next Food Network Star: After Party. She has also developed several pilots. “It’s a natural jump from talk to court,” Steinberg says.

“I felt that we needed a strong captain,” Brown says of making the show’s leadership change. “Because Gail had so much background in talk, with Ricki Lake and all, she was the perfect candidate. It was time to freshen up the show.”

In response to the difficult economy, Steinberg intends to help couples who can’t afford to divorce. More couples are staying married purely for financial reasons, she says. Divorce Court is offering certain couples $1,500 if they come on the show and still end up divorcing.

Toler, who has spent much of her free time working on issues related to domestic violence, will get more involved with the litigants who appear on the show this season, either by talking with them on the courtroom floor or meeting with them in her chambers after the case.

“This is giving me a better opportunity to address issues that arise,” Toler says. “Sometimes you’ll have a little pushing and shoving between the couple, for example. This lets me go off the bench or head to chambers and say something about it.”

The show also will have expert witnesses take on other challenging topics, such as drug abuse, hoarding or mental illness.

While Divorce Court is being reworked, the hallmark of court shows remains stability. No other syndicated court shows have significant changes planned as they head into next season.

E-mail comments to palbiniak@gmail.com and follow her on Twitter: @PaigeA

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