Court back in session as ‘Alex’ pounds gavel

Twentieth went straight to producers, agents for show

Given the glut of half-hour syndicated court shows that were on in daytime several years ago, it’s hard to believe that stations are clamoring for more.

But with only seven of these strips on the air now — down from 10 during the 2000 season — one syndicator says it’s time to go back to the gavel.

“We went to stations and realized there’s a real appetite for court shows,” says Twentieth TV’s programming and development prexy Robb Dalton. “They don’t break the bank, and you can double-run them. They’re a great value.”

In analyzing how a genre show gets developed for NATPE — in this case, Twentieth’s “Judge Alex” — conversations with station programming officials are usually the first step. Next, of course, comes creating a show that fits the order.

With court in mind, Twentieth officials bypassed their own internal development resources and went straight to their network of producers and agents: “Know any good judges?” they asked.

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Sharon Sussman and Burt Wheeler — the producer team behind MTV’s “Singled Out” and Twentieth’s “EX-treme Dating,” among other projects — quickly found Florida Circuit Court Judge Alex Ferrer. And the next thing Dalton knew, he was on his way to Miami to watch a double-murder trial.

The fact that Ferrer is tall (6-foot-3), Hispanic and handsome was certainly a match for the court genre’s female-driven, racially diverse daytime aud. Dalton was also impressed with the way the judge conducted himself and the case.

“He handled it with laser-like precision,” Dalton recalls. “He has this incredible court presence and understanding of the law. He also has a sense of humor and empathy.”

Choosing show business over an appellate court appointment from Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, Ferrer was soon signed to a step deal and flown out to Los Angeles in November to shoot four pilots. The format of the show would be straight-forward enough — Ferrer would oversee the usual gamut of small-claims cases, relationship issues and wayward teens.

But what really counts is how Ferrer comes across on the small screen.

“It all falls apart if you don’t find the right personality,” says Dalton, part of a Twentieth team that’s overseen more than 2,000 episodes of court strips over the last half-decade.

Twentieth’s sales team, led by Paul Franklin, liked the pilot presentation, Dalton says.

“Everybody who’s seen the tape has a positive reaction. Now our sales guys do everything. And it will all be resolved before NATPE.”

When it launched its last court show, “Texas Justice” back in 2001, Twentieth employed a slow-rollout strategy, nurturing the strip on a finite number of Fox stations, primarily in the Southwest before clearing the show nationwide. Perhaps sensing demand for court is a little greater this time, Twentieth will try to clear “Judge Alex” in more than 90% of the country for next fall.

Dalton, meanwhile, will continue to work out the day-to-day production details for the show, which will start shooting in the spring if it gets a greenlight. Producers have to be assigned and Twentieth officials still haven’t even figured out where the show will be produced.

“Developing a court show isn’t is complex as a talkshow, but it’s still not simple,” Dalton says.