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Here Come the Judges

Not every judge is TV-ready. Former New York Mayor Ed Koch, the first judge on the 1997 revival of The People's Court, seemed dynamic until he got in front of a camera. He was thrown out of court two years later.

Producers tried to recruit Jeanine Pirro, a district attorney and cable-TV crime commentator, for a proposed court show several years ago. But she opted instead to pursue a political career and is now looking to challenge Hillary Rodham Clinton for her New York Senate seat.

Today, many agents find, package and shop court talent, stepping into what was once the exclusive domain of studio development executives. The genre's strength guarantees them steady commissions to supplement their 10% on more pricey shows with less staying power.

The recipe for a judicial hit isn't complicated: “You meet the litigants, get a description of what the case and lawsuit are about, and see a beginning, middle and end,” says Greg Meidel, president of programming for Paramount Domestic Television, which produces and distributes the top two court shows, Judge Judy and Judge Joe Brown. “It's at hyper speed, and it is all really entertaining.”

Almost all the judge shows involve binding arbitration. Many revolve around small-claims cases. Twentieth Television's Divorce Court also deals with family law and marriage reconciliation, palimony and cohabitation contracts. Sony's Judge Hatchett features cases involving DNA issues and interventions.

The decisions rendered by these TV courts, taped in Los Angeles and New York, are rarely challenged because, as several court producers acknowledge, the shows “guarantee collection”—in other words, pay the judgments—due to strong competition among the programs to get the financially challenged litigants to appear.

With the exception of the two top-rated shows, most pay appearance fees. Sony notes that Judge Hatchett litigants get $300 for small-claims cases but do not get an appearance fee if they undergo costly DNA tests or interventions. Court shows generally also cover travel, room and board.

With a large portion of the daytime audience African-American, as well as increasingly Hispanic, studios have been looking for judges with whom viewers can identify. Among the seven syndicated court shows this fall, four will have African-American judges (Greg Mathis, Mablean Ephriam, Glenda Hatchett and Joe Brown), and two will showcase Cubans (Marilyn Milian and Alex E. Ferrer).

Over the past decade, a dozen daytime court shows have been spawned by Judge Judy (7.5 GAA rating September 2004-July 2005). Below is a look at five survivors and one new entrant, Judge Alex.—J.B.