“I’m a truth-machine, sir,” snaps the woman in the black robe. “I eat liars for breakfast.”
The woman is “Judge Judy” Sheindlin, reveling in the role of top dog on her runaway-hit syndicated court show. One of the most famous personalities on television, Sheindlin gleefully embraces the persona of a tough, overbearing, insult-spouting authority figure.
And the mass audience can’t get enough of Sheindlin’s highly polished, and frequently hilarious, shtick. More people are tuning in to this five-foot-two, 65-year-old bundle of dyspeptic energy this season than at any other time since 2003-04.
CBS TV Distribution, the syndicator of “Judge Judy,” is so enamored of her surge in the ratings that it has extended her contract another two years, through the 2011-12 season. CBS TV is forking over a king’s ransom in salary — about $38 million a year — making Sheindlin one of the highest-paid celebrities in television.
John Nogawski, president and COO of CBS TV Distribution, won’t discuss financial details except to say that “Judge Judy” is one of the company’s “top few shows” in firstrun syndication.
And that’s saying something, because Nogawski presides over “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” “Dr. Phil,” “Wheel of Fortune” and “Jeopardy,” all of which chalk up extravagant profits for the distributor.
One of the reasons more viewers are seeking out “Judge Judy” this season, says Nogawski, is that younger viewers are turning away from off-net sitcoms in the late-afternoon time periods where “Judge Judy” resides.
To lure those disaffected viewers, producers have drawn up a blueprint to get younger litigants on the show, Nogawski says.
And if the younger litigants are suffering through “broken relationships,” says Randy Douthit, “you’ll really pull in teenagers and young adults.” Douthit has served as executive producer and director of “Judge Judy” since shortly after the show kicked off more than 12 years ago.
Young viewers appear to be getting the word. Based on season-to-date numbers, the series is reaching 9% more adults 18-34 than during the same period last season — an impressive feat for a veteran show.
But “Judge Judy” performs so well with its demographic target of people 25 to 54 that Nogawski says the show provides the second best lead-in to local-station news, behind “Oprah.”
A number of CBS-owned stations carry the show, led by WCBS New York, KCBS Los Angeles and WBBM Chicago. But Fox-owned stations also have local rights to “Judge Judy” in some big markets, including WTXF Philadelphia and KDFW Dallas.
For the last decade, “Judge Judy” has dominated the courtshow genre, usually doubling the numbers of its closest pursuers. “Judge Joe Brown,” also from CBS TV Distribution, is No. 2, and averages only about half the audience of “Judge Judy.”
“Judge Judy is the queen of court, just as Oprah is the queen of talk,” says Garnett Losak, VP and director of programming for Petry Media Corp., which represents TV stations throughout the country.
Douthit calls the byplay between Sheindlin and the small-claims combatants who come before her every day “the equivalent of a reality-type soap opera.”
In an interview, Sheindlin said she deliberately avoids serious cases like child abuse. “I’m an entertainer,” she says, “and I’m paid as an entertainer,” adding that a TV courtshow is not the place to hash over cases that could lead to what she calls “life-altering decisions.”
“I deal with conflicts that irritate people and give them stress, like the dispute over a car payment,” Sheindlin says. “I can resolve those cases in a moment.”
Bill Carroll, VP and director of programming for the TV-station rep-firm Katz TV, says Sheindlin’s forcefulness and decisive rulings have made the show stand out.
Other forms of syndicated series including talkshows “are not set up to provide viewers with resolutions to disputes, with a right and a wrong,” Carroll says. “Judge Judy is an authority figure who brings satisfying closure to two disputes every day.”
Some members of the bar are not thrilled by the influence that Sheindlin’s show has on people. Even though one ad calls Sheindlin “The Ruler of the Free World,” she’s acting as a private arbitrator, not a judge. When she awards money in one of her rulings, it’s the producers who pony up.
The series includes a disclaimer explaining some of these nuances, but it’s printed in microscopic type and zips by in seconds. Critic of the show fear that Sheindlin’s loud putdowns and no-bullshit moral judgments are giving viewers a distorted picture of how the deeply flawed justice system operates in the U.S.
When these viewers go on juries, they may screw up the process of reaching a verdict because their heads are full of shows like “Judge Judy,” critics say.
Sheindlin couldn’t disagree more. “My viewers are smart,” she says. “They know I have a contract with a TV show and that I make a lot of money.
“In a way,” she continues, “I am presiding over a real court.” But the difference between Sheindlin’s court and a real-world court, she says, “is that I’m making the right thing happen at the end of the trial.”
Maybe the right thing does happen, and maybe all the bad guys flinch on camera when they get whacked with a vintage Judge Judy zinger. But to Nogawski, it’s all show business.
“Judy transcends the courtshow genre,” he says. “She’s presiding over an entertainment vehicle, and she’s often just as funny as any scripted comedy that you can find on television between 3 and 5 p.m.”