Superior Court Shows

Compared with other genres, they rule

CBS' Judge Judy is having the best year of any first-run show in syndication. It's the only first-run show able to boast that its season-to-date household ratings performance has improved over last year.

But as a group, the court shows also are having the best year of any genre in syndication. Season-to-date through March 11, the nine veteran court shows are down just 5% from last year.

“In 30 years of court shows, averages have held up better than any other,” says Bob Cook, president and COO of Twentieth Television. “Court shows are mini-dramas. They have resolution and people watch because of the litigants, the entertainment factor of the story and the entertainment factor of the judge.”

Being down year to year may sound like bad news, but comparatively, it's a strong performance. When everything else is down, a genre in a slower decline is as good as the news gets.

Season-to-date, the 10 established talk shows are down 11% for the year in households. The five veteran entertainment magazines have fallen 12%. The four games are down 8%. And the off-net sitcoms are struggling the most, with the four vets—Sony's Seinfeld, CBS' Everybody Loves Raymond, Sony's King of Queens and Warner Bros.' Friends—down an average of 17%. Off-net sitcoms are getting a much-needed boost this year from the two high-rated rookies, Warner Bros.' Two and a Half Men and Twentieth's Family Guy.

Individually, Judge Judy is up 4% for the year, while the rest of the genre is down. Judy has been on the air for 12 years, the longest of any of the current court shows, although People's Court has been through several iterations in its 27-year history.

“That longevity works to your benefit,” says one syndication executive. “The first in the genre always lasts the longest. And Judy has more affiliate clearances in early fringe and access clearances than any other court show.”

Besides Judy, Twentieth's Judge Alex has dipped 5%; CBS' Judge Joe Brown, Warner Bros.' People's Court and Twentieth's Cristina's Court have each declined 7%; Twentieth's Divorce Court and Sony's Judge Maria Lopez have decreased 10%; and Warner Bros.' Judge Mathis has lost 12%. Sony's Judge Hatchett, which is ending original production after this year, is down 13%, the most of any court show year to year.

None of the talk shows, which air in daytime and often compete against the court shows, have improved year to year. Even CBS' The Oprah Winfrey Show, talk's top program, has fallen 16% year to year. CBS' Dr. Phil, in second place, is down 8%. Disney-ABC's Live With Regis and Kelly, in third place and in its 25th season, has dropped 12%.

Warner Bros.' Ellen is a bright spot, holding steady for the year. CBS' Rachael Ray has dipped 5%. Three shows that have been talk strongholds—NBC Universal's Maury, CBS' Montel Williams and NBCU's Jerry Springer—have been seeing year-to-year declines for several seasons. Maury is down 17%, and Montel, which taped its last original episode in mid-March, is down 12%. Warner Bros.' Tyra Banks has plunged 20% after losing some of its secondary runs. And NBCU's Martha has lost 21% compared to last year.

“Court is the most successful and competitive genre in syndication,” says John Weiser, president of distribution for Sony Pictures Television. “It has the highest 'stick' rate—more court shows return for a second season than shows in any other genre.”

The genre also is relatively inexpensive to produce, helping it maintain its appeal for producers.

“Everyone is still walking in here [pitching] court shows,” Cook says. But it makes perfect sense in a market where a decent rating is harder and harder to get, he adds: “You can do a 1.5 or better and still have a business that works.”