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Judge Judy Weighs Her Lucrative Options

After 21 years in syndication, Judge Judy Sheindlin, 74, is arguably at the top of her game. But her empire-building is just getting into full swing.

The show in which she stars, CBS Television Distribution’s Judge Judy, continues to lead the charts, competing with Debmar-Mercury’s Family Feud for household honors. In the week ended Feb. 26, Judge Judy averaged a 7.2 live-plus-same-day household rating, according to Nielsen, and a 2.9 among women 25-54, ranking the show second in daytime’s key demographic among all first-run shows. And Judge Judy remains that strong after being on the air since 1996.

Three and a half years ago, Sheindlin created a new court format she called Hot Bench. Inspired after a trip to Ireland, where trials are held by panels of judges, she decided to develop a court show in which a trio of judges made decisions instead of a single jurist, the traditional format for court shows since the days of the late, great Judge Wapner.

‘Hot Bench’ Blazes

When Hot Bench launched in 2014, no one paid it much mind; it was just another court show. Today, Hot Bench is the No. 3-rated show in daytime, behind only Judy herself and CTD’s top talk show, Dr. Phil. In the week ended Feb. 26, Hot Bench tied its season high—2.6 in households.

Sheindlin also has been creating other ideas for new shows. CBS Studios had been working on a pilot based on Sheindlin’s life, although that project isn’t moving forward, according to a studio spokeswoman. She is also developing other first-run shows for syndication.

When she last signed a contract in 2015, Sheindlin reupped with CTD for five more years at between $45 million and $50 million per year, taking her through 2019-20. Several sources said that’s when she plans to retire at age 77. “For sure, she’s going to be done after 2019-20,” said one distribution executive. “In the fall of 2020, there will be no more [new episodes of] Judge Judy.”

That said, no such conversations have been had within CTD, according to sources, and 2020-21 will mark Judge Judy’s milestone 25th season.

As part of that round of contract talks, Sheindlin asked for—and received—the rights to her entire library, going all the way back to when she started in 1996, as first reported by The Hollywood Reporter. A CTD insider said that the deal was made because “we love Judy and we want her to be happy,” although CTD officially declined to comment on the record.

Sheindlin has recruited an investment banker, Lisbeth Barron, to sell the library for her at a reported price of as much as $200 million. While one source estimated the library could be worth that much, thus far potential distributors haven’t been willing to plunk down that money up front in order to see how much they can get back from the marketplace.

“Nobody really knows how much the library is worth, there’s no real example,” the distribution executive said. “There’s value in the library once she stops doing the show. How long that value extends is the question.”

Library Deal Looks Complicated

There are a lot of moving parts to any potential deal. Some TV stations have clauses in their contracts that prohibit episodes of Judge Judy from running on any cable networks while the show is airing in first-run. CTD also maintains exclusive rights to the show’s two most current seasons—the one presently on the air and the season before that. Seasons further back than that appear to be fair game should a streaming service want to acquire them.

Another hitch is that the show wasn’t produced in high-definition until 2009-10, so all episodes prior to that would need to be converted, which, needless to say, is an expensive process.

One option that makes sense is for stations to license the library episodes once Judge Judy goes out of production. The show’s reruns currently rate as well as the originals. TV stations across the country rely on Judge Judy as a news lead-in, and replacing the show with a program that does similar ratings will be nearly impossible, if the departure of The Oprah Winfrey Show in 2011 proves anything.

“I do think the library is worth something, but not $200 million,” said a TV station executive. “I think there’s value because there will be some 4 p.m. legs left in this after ’20.”

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.