Bench Marks

Americans are going to court voluntarily every day with TV's Judge Judy and her peers, making these shows tops in their daytime slots. The defendants may be pathetic but the brand of justice is refreshingly simple.

April 14, 1999|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

The verdict is in: Stern-faced, no-nonsense judges are the new stars of daytime TV. And that means more of them will soon be coming to a small screen near you.

But the question is: What's the appeal? What is it about the cranky Judge Judy that suddenly makes her more popular than the empathetic Oprah? And why is Judge Mills Lane, who looks and sounds like an angry Elmer Fudd, now challenging the likes of "Jerry Springer"?

"I think it's a combination of factors," said Emerson Coleman, vice president of programming for the Hearst-Argyle station group. "They all offer a satisfying kind of formula for viewers with a clearly defined beginning, middle and end that provides the kind of closure you rarely get in your real life.

"The other constant in all the shows is the sense of authority that the judges have -- this idea that right is right and wrong is wrong. I think viewers find satisfaction in that."

The best measure of TV heat is ratings, and the ratings for "Judge Judy," featuring a retired New York City judge named Judy Sheindlin, are up 76 percent over last year. "Judge Judy," which premiered in 1996, now averages almost 9 million viewers a day, making it the most-watched show on daytime television -- more popular than "Oprah" or "Jerry Springer."

Such ratings always lead to imitation in the world of television. The early success of "Judge Judy" led to the revival in 1997 of "The People's Court" with Ed Koch, the former mayor of New York, on the bench. That show now averages 3.2 million viewers a day, which is not bad at all.

But not good enough in a genre this hot. Last week, the producers announced that Koch would be replaced next fall by Jerry Sheindlin, a New York Supreme Court judge who just happens to be the husband of Judge Judy.

"The People's Court" is not even the second most popular courtroom show, according to Marc Berman, a TV analyst for Sentel, a firm that specializes in media buying. There are two others ahead of it in the ratings -- "Judge Mills Lane" and "Judge Joe Brown." And getting to second place is going to be even tougher for Judge Judy's husband next fall, because two more shows are joining the lineup -- "Judge Greg Mathis" and a revival of "Divorce Court."

"The court show is an extremely successful formula right now, and you can definitely say that Baltimore viewers have really taken to it," said Coleman, whose Hearst-Argyle group runs 26 network affiliates including WBAL in Baltimore, making him one of the more important buyers of such syndicated programs nationwide.

Four of the court shows are seen weekdays in Baltimore: "Judge Joe Brown" on WUTB (Channel 24), "The People's Court" on WMAR (Channel 2), and "Judge Judy" and "Judge Mills Lane" on WNUV (Channel 54). In February, "Judge Judy" beat the early news on WMAR (Channel 2), a remarkable performance for any syndicated program to beat a major newscast on a network affiliate.

"Judge Joe Brown," meanwhile, made newcomer WUTB competitive in its time period overnight, beating WMAR's "Montel Williams" in February -- another pretty impressive performance. WMAR recently realigned its weekday schedule, moving Williams to 9 a.m. and bringing "The People's Court" to the 4 p.m. time slot to compete with "Judge Joe Brown" -- an indication of the kind of impact court shows are already having on local lineups and viewing patterns.

Each of the shows opens with a reporter or announcer laying out the facts of a case. Many of the cases deal with relationships gone bad and disputes over money spent, lent or borrowed during the relationship. Some of the people standing before the bench are pretty pathetic -- pathetic enough that we can feel superior to them, just as we do the combatants on shows like "Jerry Springer."

Last week on "Judy Judy," a 31-year-old guy was suing his 29-year-old ex-girlfriend and co-worker for a $500 car loan, lost wages and getting fired from his job. She counter-sued for harassment. The guy kept saying how much he still loved her, as he told the world what a tramp she was for sleeping with other men.

This week, a woman was suing her sister for a $3,000 unpaid car loan. The sister's defense was that she was poor, her sister was rich and everyone else in the family called the lending sister "Hitler."

On "The People's Court" this week, two women who said they had been friends for 17 years were fighting over a cheap carpet one of their cats had ruined. Before it was over, each told America about the other's addictions to pills and alcohol. One of the women seemed utterly shattered by the experience.

On all the shows, each case ends with the plaintiff and defendant walking out into the lobby, where they are interviewed about their feelings. The more they talk, the more pathetic they often seem.

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