Court show

For broader genres, see legal drama and reality legal programming.

A court show (also known as a judge show, legal/courtroom program, courtroom show, or judicial show) is a television programming subgenre of either legal dramas or reality legal programming. Court shows present content mainly in the form of legal hearings between plaintiffs and defendants presided over by a pseudo-judge. At present, these shows typically portray small claims court cases, produced in a simulation of a small claims courtroom inside of a television studio. The genre began in radio broadcasting in the 1930s and moved to television in the late 1940s, beginning with such TV shows as Court of Current Issues, Your Witness, Famous Jury Trials, etc.[1]

Widely used techniques in court shows have been dramatizations and arbitration-based realities. The genre began with dramatizations and remained the technique of choice for roughly six decades. By the late 1990s, however, arbitration-based realities had overwhelmingly taken over as the technique of choice within the genre, the trend continuing into the present. Dramatizations were either fictional cases (often inspired from factual details in actual cases) or reenactments of actual trials. The role of the judge was often taken by a retired real-life judge, a law school professor or an actor.[2] Arbitration-based realities, on the other hand, have typically involved litigants who have agreed to have their disputes aired on national television so as to be adjudicated by a television show "judge." Due to the forum merely being a simulated courtroom constructed within a television studio as opposed to a legitimate court of law, the shows' "judges" are actually arbitrators and what is depicted is a form of binding arbitration. The arbitrators presiding in modern court programs have had at least some legal experience, which is often listed as requirement by these programs.[3][4]

These television programs tend to air once or twice for every weekday as part of daytime television and often cost little to create (under $200,000 a week, where entertainment magazines cost five times that[5]). Like talk shows, the procedure of court shows varies based upon the titular host. In most cases, they are first-run syndication programs. In 2001, the genre began to beat out soap operas in daytime television ratings.[6] While all syndicated shows are steadily losing audiences, court shows have the slowest rate of viewer erosion. Accordingly, by the end of the 2000s, the number of court shows in syndication had, for the first time, equaled the number of talk shows.[7] As reported in late 2012, court programming is the second highest-rated genre on daytime television.[8] The genre's most formidable competitors in syndication have been the sitcom and game show genres.[9]

Court show genre beginnings

Radio court show era

The beginnings of the court show genre are embedded in radio broadcasting, dating back to the mid-1930s. While television has been available since the 1920s, it would not become the main media venue or even popular until the 1950s.[10] The era from the late 1920s to the mid-1950s is commonly called radio's Golden Age. In the mid-1930s, the Hauptmann trial sparked an upsurge of fascination with dramatized court shows wherein trials and hearings were acted out. As radio fans were denied the vicarious thrill of eavesdropping on the actual courtroom trials, many turned to this venue of entertainment. In these programs, testimonies were limited to the most captivating, explosive portions of the original case. Though there was risk of libel and slander suits in producing court case recreations, this threat was commonly sidestepped by taking from trials of the distant past, with the original participants dead. Prior to 1936, there were only 2 major radio court shows, The Court of Human Relations and Goodwill Court.[2][11]

Original TV court show genre (1948–95)

Early stages of televised court shows

As television began to transcend radio, the previous era of radio broadcast court programming had waned. By 1948, court programming had begun to relocate and appear on television for the first time, and thus, the television court show genre was born. In its early stages, television court shows largely followed the same "dramatized" format as radio court shows, though with the new element of physical- and visual-based entertainment. The vast majority of these court shows were depicted in black-and-white.

Dramatized court show

This court show type is a subgenre. For its broader, collective genres, see legal drama and dramatic programming.

In the same way as some films are based on true stories, featured cases on courtroom dramas are based on real-life cases. On the other hand, some are altogether made up, though often drawing on details from actual cases. To recreate cases and make them up, staff members working for the court shows would research the country's court cases. From the cases they felt would make for captivating television, they derived ideas or simply cases to recreate. Typically, the role of judge on these programs was played by a law school professor, an actor, or a retired judge. The roles of litigants, bailiffs, court reporters, and announcers were always performed by actors and actresses. While some of these court shows were scripted and required precise memorization, others were outlined and merely required ad-libbing. In outlined cases, actor-litigants and -witnesses were instructed to never get too far off the angle of the case.[3][4] Under its dramatized format, the early court show genre shared more of a resemblance to legal dramas than the programs that have come to represent the modern judicial genre.

While the introduction of this technique dates back to the late 1940s, the departure of its popular use occurred in the early 1990s. The technique scarcely existed for a great deal of time, that is, up until Entertainment Studios recently reintroduced the methodology, airing three staged court shows as of the 2012–13 television season: America's Court with Judge Ross, We the People With Gloria Allred, and Justice for All with Judge Cristina Pérez. Each of these series uses a filming style and format more closely resembling arbitration-based court shows than the filmed dramas seen in early television. A standard disclaimer in tiny print is shown at the end of each of these programs. Entertainment Studios has been criticized for use of the technique.[14][15] As of the first half of the 2012–13 television season, the three court shows have been the lowest rated in the judicial genre.[16][17]

List of originally traditional court shows

The following court shows all follow a basic setup that represents the most widely used technique from the original era of judicial programming. This setup is that of a mock trial which saw dramatized court case proceedings being heard and eventually ruled upon by an actor-judge or actors-jury. Roles were made up of plaintiffs, defendants, and judges; and frequently lawyers, juries, and witnesses. Unlike the present-day where the norm is the handling civil trials, most of the court shows in this era were criminal trials. The main setting was the courtroom; however, performance and drama had been known to leave the courtroom sporadically for short periods so as to add a story-like quality and fill out the plotline. Some of the shows had thematic cases, such as traffic-themed (Traffic Court), divorce-themed (Divorce Court), etc.

List of originally nontraditional court shows

Modern TV court show genre (1996–present)

Arbitration-based reality court show

This court show type is a subgenre known as reality court show. For its broader, collective genres, see reality legal programming and reality television.

Far more realistic than their dramatized predecessors, arbitration-based reality versions do not use actors, scripts, or recreations. Rather, they feature litigants who have legitimately been served and filed lawsuits, presenting their cases to an adjudicator. Behavior and commentary from all participants involved is self-directed as opposed to script-directed. As such, these types of court shows fall into a subcategory of reality television. It is for these reasons that many of these particular programs make clear claims to authenticity, as text and voiceovers remind viewers that the cases, litigants, and outcomes are "real."[7]

Despite possessing certain real-life elements, however, arbitration-based reality court shows are less credible than "unaffected" reality court programs, which draw on footage from actual courtrooms holding legal proceedings to capture the legal system as naturally as possible (e.g., Parole, On Trial). The "judges" in arbitration-based court programs are not actual judges, but rather arbitrators or adjudicators. For one to be considered an acting judge, he/she must be operating within a court and thus bound by the rules and regulations of the legal system. The setting in these types of court shows is not a legitimate court of law, but rather a studio set designed to look like a courtroom. In this respect, arbitrators are not legally restricted to mandatory courtroom/legal policies, procedures, and codes of conduct; rather, they can preside in ways intended for entertainment. Moreover, they have the power to act by their own standards and enforce their own rules and regulations. This power is reinforced through agreements signed by the parties prior to the case proceedings. Once waivers have been signed, arbitrators gain jurisdiction over the litigants, and thus these litigants are bound by the rules and regulations set by the arbitrator.[22][23]

One study noted, "In exchange for streamlining the process (and likely sacrificing some legal rights), litigants surrender their fates to the media apparatus and experience a justice system ruled by the conventions of television drama and personality of the presiding television judge."[7]

Arbitration-based reality shows guarantee monetary relief if the judgement is won. The show pays the judgment from a fund reserved for each case, paid for by the show's advertising and syndication revenue; the defendant is also compensated a lesser amount for the appearance. In actual small claims courts, however, winning the judgement is frequently only the first step as judgments do not ensure the victor the money he/she is owed. Getting the defendant to pay his or her judgment can be taxing and courts typically do not get involved, which means it is left up to the victors to collect.[24]

Rise of arbitration-based reality court shows

During its first 1981–93 life, The People's Court with Joseph Wapner existed as a nontraditional court show, featuring real-life arbitrations in an era of dramatized court programming. It is the first "arbitration-based reality" court show to air, beginning in 1981. In addition, it is the first popular, long-running "reality" court show. Prior to the arrival of The People's Court, real life elements were next to nonexistent on court shows, with the exception of a few short-lived nontraditional court shows; these precedent reality court shows, however, were only loosely related to judicial proceedings, except for one: Parole (1959), which took footage from real-life courtrooms holding legal proceedings. Since the advent of arbitration-based reality court shows by The People's Court, numerous other duplicate courtroom programs have been produced. Its revolutionizing impact, however, was not immediate. After The People's Court's cancellation in 1993, a second arbitration-based reality court show surfaced the year following, Jones & Jury (1994–95). This was the only arbitration-based reality court show airing during this time and short-lived in its existence. The two other court shows in production during this time were nontraditional programs Kids' Court (1989–94) and Judge for Yourself (1994–95).[6]

In 1996, a 3rd arbitration-based reality court show emerged, Judge Judy.[6] Upon debuting, it was described as an "edgier" version of The People's Court, adding attitude to the bench.[25] It was only after the ratings boom of Judge Judy in the late 1990s that a slew of other arbitration-based reality court shows arrived on the scene. In fact, due to the popularity of Sheindlin's court show, dramatized court shows became next to nonexistent. Among the influx of other reality court shows included the resurrections of the previously cancelled and defunct People's Court and Divorce Court (adopting the arbitration-based reality format of its counterparts). Following after Judge Judy, most court shows began using personal show titles consisting of the judge's name, and the popularity of impersonal titles dwindled considerably. Judge Judy has remained the highest rated court show since its debut. It has been the highest rated show in all of daytime television programming since 2009–10 television season. Justice David Sills noted in one opinion that "daytime television in the early 21st century has been full of 'judge shows,' where ordinary people bring a dispute for decision before a celebrity jurist."[26]

Divorce Court is the only show in the genre to have utilized both popular formats ("dramatized" and "arbitration reality") during their heyday. Moreover, of all the shows in the modern judicial genre, Divorce Court is the oldest. It has also had the most seasons in the entire genre. The series has had three lives in syndication, from 1957 to 1969 (dramatized); from 1985 to 1992 (dramatized); and currently since 1999 (arbitration-based reality). Altogether, as of the 2013–14 season, the court show has had a grand total of 34 seasons. In second place is The People's Court with 29 seasons and two lives as of the 2013–14 season. With no suspensions in its production history, Judge Judy has had the longest lasting individual life of any reality court show. The program entered its 18th season on September 9, 2013.[27]

List of present-day arbitration-based court shows

The following court shows all follow a basic setup that represents the most widely used approach in the present-day judicial genre. Beyond the use of arbitration, other key elements include a simulated courtroom as the main setting in these programs (in some of these court shows, an area just outside the courtroom is regularly used to tape litigant feedback after their case), and one to four hearings typically take up the entirety of the program. The court cases that are captured all operate in the form of small claims court. For example, only small-scale civil matters are heard and ruled on, such as back rent, unpaid personal loans or wages, minor property damage, minor consumer complaints, etc. As another example of the small claims format, relief that is sought is money or recovery of personal property. As another example, litigation is conducted in the form of a bench trial (as opposed to its more common counterpart, the jury trial) as only the court show's arbiter may rule on the dispute. Another example, there are no lawyers present and litigants must defend themselves. An additional example, the maximum award limit is $5,000.

As indicated below, the only traditional court shows still remaining on the air from the 1990s or prior are The People's Court (1981), Judge Judy (1996), and Judge Mathis (1999).[28]

List of present-day nontraditional court shows

As with the original court programming era, the modern era has seen a wide variety of unconventional court shows. These are shows that do not take the typical format and procedure of most of the shows within today's judicial genre. For the most part, court shows mimic the average bench trial in small claims court, tackling miscellaneous civil matters. Unconventional court shows, on the other hand, have their own, very distinct twist that separates them dynamically from traditional courtroom programs and each other as well. Among the list of nontraditional court shows that have been produced include:

To date, the only court show that is currently on the air since before the 2000s is Divorce Court (1957), the court show genre's longest running program.

Upcoming court shows


Unlike the original era of court shows, the 2nd era consists of a great deal of ethnic and racial diversity. Few pay much attention to the shifting demographics of court show judges. In 2001, reportedly 7 of 10 judges were male; however 6 of these judges were black, comprising 4 black males and 2 black females. Only 4 were white. By 2008, female television judges had outnumbered their male counterparts. Additionally, 4 judges were Latina/o and another four were black. Judy Sheindlin and David Young (an openly gay male) were the only non-Hispanic whites. It has been argued, however, that television judge demographics can distort images of real-life judge demographics. Real-life judge demographics show sharp contrasts to television judge demographics. Women are only 18.6% of federal judges and about 20% of state judges. Only 3% of judges are black in the United States. Overwhelmingly, American judges are white males. A study noted that "television court shows may reduce support for increased racial and gender diversity on the bench by sending a message to the public that United States benches are already diverse."[63][64]

Criticisms and acclaim

Daytime Emmy Awards

The judicial genre became a category in the Daytime Emmy Awards for the first time in 2008, titled Outstanding Legal/Courtroom Program. Previously, if nominated for an award, court shows were matched up miscellaneously against a series of talk shows. Cristina's Court (only lasting three seasons, from 2006 to 2009) was the first court show to win a Daytime Emmy Award, and to date, the only court show to win more than one Daytime Emmy Award. The court show won the Outstanding Legal/Courtroom Program Award in 2008 (two seasons into its run), 2009, and 2010 (the series cancelled by this period). Judge Pirro (2008–2011) won in 2011, upon being cancelled just two seasons into its run. Last Shot with Judge Gunn (2011–present) won in 2012, only a season into its run. To date, this represents the earliest into production that any court show has ever received a Daytime Emmy. Moreover, Last Shot is the first nontraditional courtroom series to receive a Daytime Emmy. Up until 2012, all of the annually presented awards all went to freshman court shows that had only recently emerged in the genre at the time of their rewarding. On June 14, 2013, however, Judge Judy became the first long-running, highly rated court show to receive an Emmy, which landed on its 15th nomination.

Court-related networks

See also


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External links

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