Which TV personality takes home the biggest paycheck? The answer is often elusive to industryites who focus on the scripted primetime arena. But in terms of salary paid to talent for a show — the gavel comes down for Judge Judy.
Judith Sheindlin earns a whopping $47 million annually for presiding over the hit CBS-distributed syndicated court show, now in its 21st season.
“Judge Judy” averages 10.3 million viewers a week, making it the most-watched national program in daytime TV. The show brings in an estimated $160 million-$170 million in revenue a year, including license fees from 200-plus stations around the country and CBS’ barter advertising revenue.
Production costs are minimal, which is one reason Sheindlin can command such a huge payday. Her long-serving bailiff, Petri Hawkins-Byrd, is said to pull in more than $1 million a year for his work on the show, which typically shoots 260-odd episodes over the course of about 52 days each year.
“Judge Judy” hit its peak in terms of revenue about a decade ago, when it first challenged “The Oprah Winfrey Show” for dominance in daytime syndication. At that time the show topped $200 million a year. Today “Judge Judy” remains the tallest tree in an overgrown forest, which makes it more valuable than ever to CBS. The show’s importance to local stations as an afternoon or early evening lead-in to lucrative newscasts has only grown in an era of fragmentation and declining linear viewership.
What’s most impressive about Sheindlin’s reign with “Judge Judy” is not her eight-figure paycheck but her staying power.
“Judge Judy” was a success virtually out of the gate in 1996. It quickly delivered big numbers for the ragtag group of stations that signed on for the first new court show to hit syndication, three years after the gavel came down for good on Judge Joseph Wapner’s pioneering “The People’s Court.” Two decades later, America still loves the blunt talk, finger-wagging, and no-nonsense justice that Sheindlin dispenses.
Producer Larry Lyttle, the executive who recruited Sheindlin for TV during his tenure as president of Viacom’s Big Ticket Television, marvels at her longevity.
“When we started, all I really knew was that there was something about [Sheindlin’s] authenticity on camera that made her incredibly compelling,” Lyttle told Variety. “We knew we had something early on, but we never thought it would be the franchise it has become. Her household ratings are still greater than many primetime series. Her value is indisputable.”