Hot Bench, TV’s top-rated court show in original production, got something of a new start this season when Executive Producer David Theodosopoulos found himself having to find two new judges on relatively short notice.
Last spring, two of Hot Bench’s original judges, Patricia DiMango and Tanya Acker, made the decision to leave the CBS Media Ventures-distributed strip. They joined mentor Judge Judy Sheindlin’s new panel court show, Tribunal, launching on Amazon Freevee, which also serves as Sheindlin’s new TV home with Judy Justice. That left Theodosopoulos in a quandary -- find two new judges in a month, when taping was due to start for the show’s ninth season, or go on hiatus.
While hiatus was an option, it felt unthinkable to Theodosopoulos, so he rolled up his sleeves, got in his car and started checking out judges.
“It went down to the wire,” he said. “Once Pat and Tanya made the decision to leave, I was forced to make a couple of choices. I thought we might have to go on hiatus but I was going to throw everything I could into finding replacements. We had scheduled our first tape day in May, and I thought ‘I am going to hold that tape cycle down and find replacements within a month.’ I might have been bold in my prediction.”
“I did crazy things - I went down to the L.A. County Superior Courthouse, took the elevator to the ninth floor and walked down the hallway, peeking into every courtroom. I would get a feeling and then go down the stairs to the eighth floor and so on.”
Theodosopoulos was looking for two women to join his remaining judge, Michael Corriero, a retired New York State criminal court judge who joined the show in its third season in 2016. He hoped to find at least one judge locally to help save travel costs since all syndicated shows are operating on tight budgets.
After scouring local court rooms and working with scouts in other markets, Theodosopoulos narrowed his search down to eight candidates. He had all of them do chemistry tests with Corriero, and it quickly “became apparent to me that Rachael and Yodit just jumped off the screen,” he said.
Rachel Juarez has a background in litigation that she turned into a family law practice in 2016. That practice specialized in representing high net worth and high income individuals as they navigated their way through divorce and other difficult situations. The Yale and Stanford Law graduate also served as a temporary judge for the Los Angeles County Superior Court Temporary Judge Program.
Yodit Tewolde lives in Dallas and already had significant media experience before Theodosopoulus happened upon her. She was host of Making the Case on Black News Channel (now The Grio TV), a host and contributor on America’s Most Wanted and morning anchor at Court TV. She still contributes to CNN, MSNBC, Fox News and HLN, providing legal analysis on high-profile cases. Tewolde also was the founder and managing attorney of her own criminal defense firm and served as association municipal judge for the City of Dallas.
Once Theodosopoulos concluded that Juarez and Tewolde were the right picks, he had them do some mock cases over Zoom with producers and staff acting as litigants.
“I still have a picture of the Zoom when I knew it was them – Michael, Rachel and Yodit. It was just clear that they were the runaway favorites,” he said.
Theodosopoulos showed the final tests to CBS Media Ventures’ President Steve LoCascio and EVP Programming and Production Rich Cervini and they agreed with his choice.
Before Theodosopoulos knew it, “we were ready to go and able to keep our May 6 tape dates.”
By making those choices, Theodosopoulos still had to budget for travel since Corriero lives in New York and Tewolde in Dallas, while Juarez is from Los Angeles. The show tapes episodes every other week or so, taking time in between taping periods to find compelling cases and round up real-life litigants. It also has several periods of hiatus throughout the year, including from late June through early August.
“Right out of the gate I said I wanted two local people but when I saw Yodit I had to weigh that. We have 32 tape days a year, so we need to fly her back and forth 16 times. I decided we can make that work with the budget. She was too good to lose over money,” he said.
Also bringing energy back to the show this season is the return of a live audience to the Hot Bench set, said Theodosopoulos.
Adding Juarez and Tewolde to Hot Bench is allowing the court show -- now in its ninth season -- to change things up while sticking with what differentiates it from other shows in its genre, with its three judges each bringing their own experience and points of view to every verdict.
“Every one of these court shows has a judge who is more or less a lawyer. Presumably, they are academically smart while in many cases you are dealing with litigants who aren’t as savvy as they are about the law. Many of these shows have a person sitting on the bench berating one or both of the parties,” said Theodosopoulos. “On our show, we have three academically advanced people who banter and deliberate amongst themselves and may not always agree. Our mantra is that we can disagree without being disagreeable. They can do it on a whole different level than what takes place in the courtroom. It gives the public a chance to see how judges think.”
Court remains a tried-and-tested genre in syndication because first, it is relatively inexpensive to produce, and second, it also offers viewers a daily dose of conflict and resolution.
“People just love the genre because you have conflict. The conflict that I want on my show is what I will call Judy-type conflict -- it’s conflict with respect. Judy said early on in her show in a court of law the judge does not allow the litigants to go back and forth arguing with each other in front of the judge. We have conflict that doesn’t descend into chaos.” ■
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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.
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