Disorder in the Court Genre

Court shows are down, but not out. Ratings for seven out of the eight veteran syndicated court programs have dropped off significantly compared to last year, with CBS Television Distribution’s Judge Judy the only exception. In the recently concluded February sweeps, that stalwart show was steady at a 7.5 live plus same-day household average compared to February 2012, according to Nielsen Media Research, and was up 9% in daytime’s key demographic of women 25-54 at a 3.5 rating. That explains why the show’s star, B&C Hall of Famer Judge Judy Sheindlin, was re-upped last week through the 2016-17 TV season.

Those numbers put Judy far ahead of even its closest rival, which is CTD’s soon-to-end Judge Joe Brown at a 2.5 in households and a 1.1 among women 25- 54. February to February, Judge Joe Brown declined 17% in households and 15% in the demographic.

Judge Joe Brown
’s performance is much more the norm than Judy’s. Twentieth’s Divorce Court is down the least of the court vets, falling 7% since February 2012 to a 1.4 in households and 11% to a 0.8 among women 25-54. However, Divorce Court is the third-lowest-ranked show in the genre at a 1.4 in households and a 0.8 among women 25-54. Among the veterans, Divorce Court only outperforms Entertainment Studios’ America’s Court and We the People, which average a 0.8 and a 0.2 respectively.

Warner Bros.’ third- and fourth-place shows, People’s Court and Judge Mathis, are both down 17% in households and 20% and 22%, respectively, among women 25-54. And Twentieth’s Judge Alex, which was surging last year at this time, is off 26% in households, from a 1.9 to a 1.4.

No court show— not even Judy—is up year to year in household ratings.

By contrast, only three veteran syndicated talk shows—Sony Pictures Television’s Dr. Oz, NBCUniversal’s Maury and CTD’s The Doctors—have fallen compared to last year, with Oz down 17%, Maury off 8% and The Doctors down 18%. Three talk shows— Warner Bros.’ Ellen, NBCU’s Steve Wilkos and Debmar- Mercury’s Wendy Williams—are up, and the remaining four shows are steady.

Court vs. Talk: Judge Shows Easier to Defend

While that makes it seem like talk is having more success than court, a low-rated talk show is far more likely to get the axe.

A talk show—even the fastest flop—costs $30 million minimum to produce, while production of a court show hovers more in the $15 million range. As a result, failing talk shows don’t tend to stick around.

“If a talk show does a 1.0 rating, you can’t afford to keep it on,” says one TV station executive.

Indeed, this year, Warner Bros.’ Anderson Live, Debmar-Mercury’s Jeremy Kyle, CTD’s Jeff Probst and Twentieth’s Ricki Lake all rated a 1.0 or lower, and none will return next year. The one sub- 1.0 show that will return— NBCUniversal’s Trisha Goddard— is a conflict talk show that is produced extremely efficiently at NBCU’s production facility in Connecticut, alongside Maury, Jerry and Steve Wilkos.

Even though their ratings are down, the future of court shows isn’t in question. “Their threshold for failure is lower than talk shows, by a lot,” says the station executive.

“As long as these shows continue to deliver an acceptable number and they are saleable to a particular category of advertiser, distributors will continue to develop them,” says Bill Carroll, VP, director of programming, Katz Television Group. “There are only so many shows in daytime that are economically reasonable to produce.”

Station-Mandated Improvements

One factor in the ratings erosion of court shows often cited by those in the station and syndication community is that there are so many court programs and little distinction among them. Most of the court shows have been on the air for years, and the format hasn’t evolved much.

“With few exceptions, court shows are the same in terms of what the cases are,” says Carroll. “There are nuances between them, but the viewers’ ability to differentiate— unless they have a favorite judge—makes it much more difficult in a time where you have court against court against court.”

That lack of differentiation between the shows is something that TV station executives—who remain in favor of running court show blocks, especially on smaller, duopoly stations—would like to see syndicators improve.

“This is an opportunity for distributors to come up with the next Judge Judy,” says another station executive. “If I was a judge or a producer and I saw how well Judy did, I would work my tail off to figure out how to do as well as she does.”

Updated April15, 2013 at 4:25 pm PT

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Paige Albiniak

Contributing editor Paige Albiniak has been covering the business of television for nearly 25 years. She is a longtime contributor to Next TV, Broadcasting + Cable and Multichannel News. She concurrently serves as editorial director for entertainment marketing association Promax. She has written for such publications as TVNewsCheck, The New York Post, Variety, CBS Watch and more. Albiniak was B+C’s Los Angeles bureau chief from September 2002 to 2004, and an associate editor covering Congress and lobbying for the magazine in Washington, D.C., from January 1997-September 2002.