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Judge Judy Sheindlin: Her Appeal Is Undeniable

NATPE 2010: Complete Coverage from B&C

When asked if there's anything she likes better about being a TV judge than being a judge in real life, Judge Judy Sheindlin is quick to respond: "I look better on TV."

It's that quick wit and sense of self that have kept CBS Television Distribution's Judge Judy on top of the syndication heap since the show's premiere on Sept. 16, 1996. Today, Judge Judy remains daytime's top-rated court show, scoring a 4.6 live-plus-sameday household ratings average in the November 2009 sweeps, according to Nielsen. That beat the No. 2 show, CTD's Judge Joe Brown, by more than 50%. In the last month of 2009, Judge Judy was the top-ranked first-run daytime show in all of syndication, beating even CTD's Oprah.

"Her timing is absolutely great," says Randy Douthit, Judge Judy's executive producer. "She can work someone over, and you end up laughing because of her timing. If she weren't a judge, she would be a stand-up comedian." And her wit, style and longterm success in syndication have earned Sheindlin a coveted Brandon Tartikoff Legacy Award at this year's NATPE convention in Las Vegas.

Douthit actually ended up with his current job because Judge Judy's creator, Larry Lyttle, introduced him to Tartikoff, who by then was chairman of New World. And the citation means all the more to Sheindlin, who knew Tartikoff herself.

"Receiving this award is lovely because I really was fond of Brandon," she says. "Professionally, he was innovative and a risk-taker. To have been selected to receive this award along with some other very accomplished people is very sweet for me."

"Judy is exactly what Brandon Tartikoff was all about," says John Nogawski, president of CBS Television Distribution. "She epitomizes what Brandon would have stood behind and been proud of."

Sheindlin spent the first half of her career as a judge in New York's family court system. After getting her law degree from New York Law School in 1965, she went on to become a prosecutor. In 1972, she began prosecuting juvenile delinquency cases for the state of New York. In 1982, New York Mayor Ed Koch appointed her to the bench.

Four years later, she was appointed supervising judge in Manhattan, where she heard more than 20,000 cases. Sheindlin acquired a reputation as a tough, fair, no-nonsense judge, so much so that the Los Angeles Times did a story on her in 1993; that led to a segment about her on CBS' 60 Minutes.

Those stories and the publication of her first book, Don't Pee on My Leg and Tell Me It's Raining, brought her to the attention of Lyttle, who was looking to create a new court show. Sheindlin subsequently retired from the bench, leaving her available to do TV. In 1996, Judge Judy was launched and met with instant success.

Sheindlin's not sure why her TV show remains a hit. "I wish I could give you the formula," she says. "We've been doing the same show with different hairdos for 14 years."

And unlike most daytime stars-Oprah, Ellen, Regis-Sheindlin says it doesn't matter if viewers love her or hate her. "One day, I was having a bagel with my husband at this small shop and we overheard two older women talking. One of them said, ‘You know that Judge Judy, I think she's so short and mean and she yells.' The other one said, ‘I like her. I watch her every day.' And the first one replied, ‘I watch her, too, but I don't like her.'"

That didn't rattle the ever-practical Sheindlin: "I don't care if they like me or not, as long as they watch."

‘A Tough Mom'

Douthit thinks viewers warm to Sheindlin's toughlove approach, especially in a world where limits and boundaries aren't always clear. "People see her as a tough mom," he says. "They identify with her and want to be like her. And the show offers viewers a familiar format; they know there will be conflict and they know there will be resolution. It's a classic movie theme. You always root for the good guy and in the end, you know the good guy will prevail."

"I don't think people consider me their friend," Sheindlin says. "Viewers like people like Ellen or Oprah. They get to know those hosts and feel comfortable with them. With me, I'm fulfilling a longing for order in an otherwise very fuzzy world. Viewers get a certain sense of vindication after seeing the right thing done."

Sheindlin thinks the program's format continues to appeal to both young and old, and that allows the audience to grow. "Eight-year-old kids start watching our show with their parents, and then they turn 18 and they get counted [by Nielsen]. The show isn't geared to a niche audience. It has universal appeal." Sheindlin's contract runs through 2013, and that may very well be the end of her run, hints the 67-year-old judge. "That sounds like a nice year to me, but you never can tell," she says. "Ten years ago, I said 10 good years doing this would be great. Here we are at year 14, and I'm still having a good time and the show is still doing well."

And while she still enjoys doing the show, her life with her husband, Jerry, her five adult children and 11 grandchildren is really her priority. She flies to Los Angeles for three days every other week to shoot a spate of shows and then returns home to Florida or New York.

"Life is all about adventure," she says. "When you have the gifts that I have had-two careers that made the days zip by, a mate that you are crazy about, kids that turned out to be terrific, accomplished adults and nice grandchildren- that's what it's all about. Television is really nice, but it's still television."

Even after 14 years, millions of dollars, legions of fans and continued high ratings, Sheindlin has never lost her sense of humility-and perhaps that's the real secret to her success. When the show comes to its inevitable end, "everyone's going to survive, darling," she says. "It's a television program. It's not as if the world is losing Gandhi."

Paige Albiniak
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.