Gavel-to-gavel TV courts viewers

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Move over, "judge Judy." Make room on the bench for at least another half-dozen courtroom TV programs.

Shows that will be promoted heavily at the National Association of TV Program Executives' annual conference next week in New Orleans include King World Production's "Curtis Court"; "Singles Court," from Unapix Entertainment; "Judgment Day," from Pearson Television, and "Crime and Punishment," from Twentieth Television.

If these -- or any of the other court shows promoted -- are picked up, there will be upwards of 12 courtroom programs on network TV. Some of the ones already on air are "Divorce Court," "Judge Joe Brown," "Judge Mills Lane," and "People's Court," which stars Judge Jerry Sheindlin, husband of TV's Judge Judy Sheindlin.


The genre continues to attract derivatives, each with a distinct judicial niche. "Singles Court," for example, focuses on disputes between unmarried couples, while Unapix's "Legacy," focuses primarily on inheritance disputes.

Then there's "Judgment Day," which gives the two parties a chance to voice their "beef" in a talk-show format on non-tort topics such as "my husband has been cheating on me and I'm fed up" and "my friend is nasty to the homeless, it's time to make him pay." The case is deliberated by a jury from the audience. The ruling is passed down by the host, former Denver District Attorney Norm Early.

" `Judgment Day' takes two popular formats -- court shows and talk shows -- one step further," says Frank Piantini, VP-creative services, at Pearson. "It attempts to bring closure to personal conflict in an entertaining way."

Although syndicators tout the differences between each of the shows, a unifying theme has emerged, media buyers say.

"It's all about conflict and resolution of that conflict," says Jon Mandel, co-managing director, Grey Advertising's MediaCom, New York. "People like to root for their favorite characters in these real life dramas."

"Ever since the [O.J.] Simpson trial, there has been a fascination with the courtroom process," agrees Allen Banks, exec VP-media North America, Saatchi & Saatchi, New York. "Viewers are increasingly weary of all the `talk' that's on daytime television, and frankly, they're looking for someone to take some decisive action, especially if it resolves someone else's problems."


It remains to be seen, however, whether anyone can talk tort faster than "Judge Judy," who has captured the lion's share of ratings. Back in April her program garnered a 10.4 national rating, according to Nielsen Media Research. The week of Dec. 6 she had a 7.3, ahead of 6.2 for "The Oprah Winfrey Show."

" `Judge Judy' has better ratings than `Jeopardy!,' " notes Brad Adgate, senior VP-director of research for Horizon Media, New York. "Talk shows are going down in the ratings because everyone is tired of having everyone get their turn. There's a sense that not everyone deserves a chance to give their side of the story."

And, it's not just plainspoken judges that have caught viewers' attention. King World this fall is offering a half-hour court strip called "Curtis Court," featuring James Curtis, a California state prosecutor, in the role of the presiding justice.

The show, originally titled "Relationship Court," will be shot on location in New York, with Mr. Curtis arbitrating disputes among East Coast citizens. This is a role in which King World feels he is well-suited, noting that in his audition tape Mr. Curtis came across as having a strong command of the traditional court format. A pilot and sales tape for "Curtis Court" was completed in December, plenty of time to meet the onslaught of expected buyers at NATPE.

"There's definitely a feeling that real folks -- the people who watch these courtroom shows -- are fed up with the judicial system of the U.S.," says Mr. Adgate. "These shows give people a sense of taking justice back into their own hands, even if it's just vicariously through these surrogate judges."

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