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Revival in the Court

Since the premiere of Judge Wapner and The People’s Court in 1981 and the arrival of Judge Judy in 1996, court has been standard fare in daytime TV. In recent years, the genre has waned, with both CBS Television Distribution’s Judge Joe Brown and Twentieth’s Judge Alex both ending last season.

But this season, two relative newcomers are shaking up the genre.

CTD’s Hot Bench, created by Judge Judy Sheindlin, has been a surprise hit this season, climbing 42% from its 1.2 September premiere to its current 1.7 household rating, according to Nielsen. And in its second season, with relatively few time-period upgrades, MGM’s Lauren Lake’s Paternity Court is up 33% in households to a 1.2 season-to-date compared to season 1’s 0.9 at this time.

Court shows tend to be double-run (and that’s mostly the case with Hot Bench), which helps the program’s overall rating. That said, advertisers make buys based on that cumed rating, just as they do with shows that only air once per day. And Hot Bench has managed to rise to a 1.7 even though it only averaged a 0.3 in households on WLNY New York and KCAL Los Angeles and a 0.1 on WCUU Chicago in the November sweeps.

The rise of Paternity Court seems largely based on word-of-mouth and the appeal of its star. The show did earn some season 2 upgrades in markets including Memphis, but not enough to wholly account for its rise.

“When this show launched, people had very little reference as to who Lauren was. In season 1, we used the name Paternity Court to get people to sample the show,” says John Bryan, president of MGM Domestic Television Distribution. “But once the show got going, her personality popped out, so we’ve put her front and center and added her name to the title.”

Lake also is making a name for herself in the media, appearing on NBC’s Today and Access Hollywood Live, as well as Debmar-Mercury’s Wendy Williams, Meredith’s Better TV, MGM’s RightThisMinute (also up 60% in households and 80% among women 25-54 this season), Trifecta’s OK! TV and KTLA Los Angeles.

“We’ve given court a twist and taken a point of view,” says Bryan. As its name suggests, Lauren Lake’s Paternity Court focuses on questions of paternity, but that includes adults looking for lost parents as well as mothers who aren’t certain about who fathered their child.

“Over time, audiences embrace certain personalities and they’ve come to like Lake,” says Bill Carroll, VP programming, Katz Television Group. “It always makes a difference when an audience finds a show that’s interesting and a judge they can relate to.”

Court As Daytime Drama

That seems to be the case with Hot Bench as well, which is the first court show to offer a panel of adjudicators—Judges Tanya Acker, Larry Bakman and Patricia Di Mango—instead of one central judge, à la Judge Judy. All three of Bench’s judges were selected with input from Sheindlin, and all have extensive legal experience.

“They have one goal in common, which is to have a successful show,” says Bench executive producer Randy Douthit, who also executive produces Judge Judy. Douthit adds that all three judges are now largely dedicating themselves only to the syndicated strip.

Douthit also says that the key to a successful court show is to streamline the story as much as possible. “You need to follow the story line and not waste any time,” he says, noting that court shows also work as mini-daytime dramas, with conflict presented and resolved in one episode. With only four soap operas left on the air, court shows are filling that gap for viewers.

Both Hot Bench and Lauren Lake’s Paternity Court are expected to be renewed for season 2 and season 3, respectively, with CTD eyeing for Hot Bench the slots on the CBS-owned stations that Sony Pictures Television’s Queen Latifah will vacate.

Adds Douthit: “I like the idea that after the results of this year, there could be more interest in court.”