Decades ago while Judge Judy Sheindlin was working in family court, she recalls journalist Morley Safer asking her if she thought things would get better in the future. At the time, she says she told him she believed things would actually take a turn for the worse. Every day she was presiding over cases including drug-related struggles, domestic violence, child abuse and neglect, and she knew those struggles were timeless.
But because such struggles are timeless, so too is the syndicated courtroom series she launched in 1996, “Judge Judy.” The show has not only stayed on for 22 consecutive years, but has thrived in its past 10, averaging 10 million total daily viewers and ranking as the No. 1 rated show in syndication, even as the television landscape expands exponentially around it. Currently renewed through the 2020-21 television season, it has also helped Sheindlin earn the Lifetime Achievement Award at the 46th Annual Daytime Emmy Awards, the first in the courtroom genre to receive it.
“If I had to guess why our program has had longevity it’s because we have a consistent, honest approach — or I do anyway,” Sheindlin says. “I really believe that the American viewing public is smart enough to know when it’s raining outside or when their leg is being peed on — when something is phony or contrived.”
A big believer in the golden rule, Sheindlin is always looking to impart words of wisdom on litigants from feuding neighbors, to disrespectful tenants, to those involved in car accidents — and, in turn, to her national audience.
“The responsibility that people are supposed to have as parents, as citizens, as adult children, as good co-workers, as good neighbors — the civility — I think those are messages that subliminally, through many of the cases, get told,” she says. “When I say to you, ‘You’re supposed to be a good neighbor,’ it means you’re supposed to have a tolerance; you’re supposed to be able to speak civilly, even if you have a difference of opinion.”
As the television landscape has changed around her, Sheindlin acknowledges that a core contingent of her syndication audience comes from those who feel “aged out” of some of the “sensory overload of content,” especially on some of the newer platforms. She herself admits to having to rely upon an IT professional to assist her and her husband, Judge Jerry Sheindlin, with accessing programming beyond what is on the traditional basic cable channels. Yet, the model of delivering a close-ended court case (if not more than one) within each half-hour episode speaks to both the newfound need for instant gratification, as well as a comforting, familiar structure.
“People’s emotions and their emotional needs haven’t changed,” Sheindlin says. “We’ll be on, either in first-run or second series, forever because we’re evergreen. The same problems that existed 30 years ago exist today and will exist tomorrow.”
Now, when asked if she is more hopeful that things can get better, especially with generations growing up internalizing lessons from “Judge Judy,” as well as the newer courtroom show “Hot Bench” that she created, Sheindlin says: “We’ve had hot times in this country — although I don’t think it was quite as hot as now except during the ’60s and the Vietnam War and race relations. Eventually it got better, and I’m just hoping that holds true going forward, because I don’t like a country where people that don’t even know each other are so angry with each other.”