Court show

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A court show (also known as a judge show, legal/courtroom program, courtroom series, or judicial show) is a broadcast programming subgenre of either legal dramas or reality legal programming. Court shows present content mainly in the form of legal hearings between plaintiffs (or claimants in the United Kingdom) and defendants presided over by a judge, often in one of two formats: a scripted/improvised format performed by an actor; or an arbitration-based reality format with the case handled by an adjudicator who was formerly a judge or attorney.


At present, these shows typically portray small claims court cases, produced in a simulation of a small claims courtroom inside of a television studio. However, in 2020 through 2021, numerous aspects of this genre were largely forsaken due to COVID-19, such as hearings transpiring from simulated courtroom studio sets. More so than other genres, the pandemic resulted in transformations that were drastic and conspicuous on court shows, because of their unique nature which demands a transition in disputants for each individual episode.

The genre first began in radio broadcasting in the 1930s, starting with The Court of Human Relations , and then the genre later shifted to television in the late 1940s, beginning with such TV shows as Court of Current Issues , Your Witness , Famous Jury Trials , etc. [1]


The most widely used techniques in court show genre have been A) dramatizations (scripted or loosely script-directed hearings) and B) arbitration-based reality shows. The genre began with dramatizations and remained the technique of choice for roughly six decades. By the late 1990s, however, arbitration-based reality shows 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] [3]

Arbitration-based reality shows, 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. [4] [5]

These television programs tend to air once or twice for every weekday as part of daytime television. With production costs minimal (under $200,000 a week, whereas entertainment magazines cost five times that [6] ) and an evergreen, episodic format, court shows are easily and frequently rerun. 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. [7] 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. [8] As reported in late 2012, court programming is the second highest-rated genre on daytime television. [9] The genre's most formidable competitors in syndication have been the sitcom and game show genres. [10]

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. [11] 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] [12]

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, some 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] [5] 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. [15] [16] As of the first half of the 2012–13 television season, the three court shows have been the lowest rated in the judicial genre. [17] [18]

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)

Judy Sheindlin (of highest Nielsen rated courtroom series Judge Judy) with fans Judge Judy with fans.jpg
Judy Sheindlin (of highest Nielsen rated courtroom series Judge Judy ) with fans

Arbitration-based reality court show

Far more realistic than their dramatized predecessors, arbitration-based reality versions do not use actors, scripts, improvisation or recreations. Rather, they feature litigants who have legitimately been served and filed lawsuits, presenting their cases to an adjudicator (in exchange for agreeing to appear on the show, the litigants must agree to dismiss their genuine cases with prejudice). Behavior and commentary from all participants involved is self-directed as opposed to production 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". [8]

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 presiding as actual judges, but rather arbitrators or adjudicators. For one to be considered an acting judge, they must be operating within a court and thus bound by the rules and regulations of the legal system. Jerry Springer noted that most attorneys can get the "special certification" required to serve as an arbitrator and host a court show with only a day's training: "if you're a lawyer, it's almost automatic unless you've killed someone." [24] 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 legal parties, and thus these litigants are bound by the rules and regulations set by the arbitrator. [25] [26]

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." [8]

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 and plaintiff alike are both compensated with an appearance fee. In actual small claims courts, however, winning the judgement is frequently only the first step as judgments do not ensure the victor the money, they are 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. [27]

Rise and fall 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). [7]

In 1996, a third arbitration-based reality court show emerged, Judge Judy . [7] Upon debuting, it was described as an "edgier" version of The People's Court, adding attitude to the bench. [28] 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 Judy Sheindlin's show, dramatized court shows became largely a thing of the past (that is, however, until 2010 when Entertainment Studios by Byron Allen entered the court show field, delivering a host of scripted/improvised courtroom programs). 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 eponymous show titles consisting of the judge's name, and the popularity of impersonal titles dwindled considerably. Judge Judy remained the highest rated court show for its entire 25 season run. It was the highest rated show in all of daytime television programming from 2009 to 2010 television season to its series finale June 2021. 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." [29]

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 2021–22 season, the court show has had a grand total of 42 seasons. In second place is The People's Court with 38 seasons and two lives through its 2023 cancellation. With no suspensions in its production history, Judge Judy has had the longest lasting individual life of any reality court show. The program completed its 25th and final season during the 2020-21 television season. [30] Judge Mathis follows with 24 seasons from 1999 to 2023.

As with other daytime television genera, the court show began to see declining clearance in the early 2020s in the face of declining daytime viewership and a weakening market for syndication in general. Major television station ownership groups have opted to expand local newscasts, relying upon the 24 hour news cycle to recycle content from its existing news broadcasts to create less expensive content, thus reducing the available windows for syndicated programs, which in turn draw lower advertising revenues. Warner Bros. cancelled both of its longest-running entries in the genre, The People's Court and Judge Mathis, in response to these changes. [31]

List of present-day traditional 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 in original episodes from the 1990s or prior are The People's Court (1981) and Judge Mathis (1999), [32] thus making Judge Mathis the longest running court show still in its first run that hasn't had any temporary production halts or recasting of the show's arbitrator.

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.

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.

Up until 2012, all of the annually presented awards went to freshman court shows that had only recently emerged into the genre at the time of their rewarding. Cristina's Court (only lasting three seasons, from 2006 to 2009) was the first court show to win a Daytime Emmy Award as well as the first court show to win more than once and consecutively three times, holding this record for nine years. This albeit short-lived 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.

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, the court show nominated numerous times before this category existed and competing with miscellaneous talk shows. Judge Judy went on to win 2 additional Daytime Emmy Awards, later along with The People's Court, both matching Christina's Court. Judge Mathis is the first African American presided court show to win the honor, succeeded by Lauren Lake's Paternity Court (cancelled a year later). In June 2021, The People's Court secured its 4th win for the category, which now gives it the most wins for the court show genre. By June 2022 when Judy Justice won for its first season, Judy Sheindlin became the only arbitrator to win this category for more than one television program, both her 2 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. Judge Judy Sheindlin and Judge 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." [86] [87]

Criticisms and acclaim

See also

Related Research Articles

<i>Judge Judy</i> American reality court show

Judge Judy is an American arbitration-based reality court show presided over by former Manhattan Family Court Judge Judith Sheindlin. The show featured Sheindlin as she adjudicated real-life small-claims disputes within a simulated courtroom set. Prior to the proceedings, all involved parties signed arbitration contracts agreeing to Sheindlin's ruling. The show aired in first-run syndication. As it was during its active years in production, it continues to be distributed by CBS Media Ventures in syndication, now in reruns that still draw notably high ratings.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Judy Sheindlin</span> American lawyer, judge, television personality, television producer, and author

Judith Susan Sheindlin, known professionally as Judge Judy, is an American court-show arbitrator, media personality, television producer, author, a women's advancement philanthropist and former prosecutor and Manhattan family court judge.

<i>Judge Mathis</i> American TV series or program

Judge Mathis is an American syndicated arbitration-based reality court show presided over by Judge Greg Mathis, a former judge of Michigan's 36th District Court and Black-interests motivational speaker/activist.

<i>The Peoples Court</i> American arbitration-based reality court show

The People's Court is an American arbitration-based reality court show, featuring an arbitrator handling small claims disputes in a simulated courtroom set. Within the court show genre, it is the first of all arbitration-based reality-style programs, which has overwhelmingly become the convention of the genre. The original series ran from 1981 to 1993, and the current revival debuted in 1997. Both versions have run in first-run syndication. The show ranks as the longest-running traditional court show and second-longest-running court show in general, having a total of 38 overall seasons as of the 2022-23 television year, behind only niche court show Divorce Court by 2 seasons.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Marilyn Milian</span> American judge and television personality

Marilyn Milian, better known as Judge Milian, is an American television personality, lecturer, and retired Florida Circuit Court judge. Since March 12, 2001, Milian has presided over the long-running American courtroom television series The People's Court, replacing Jerry Sheindlin, and has been with the program ever since.

Gerald "Jerry" Sheindlin is an American author, television personality, jurist and attorney. He spent many years as a trial judge serving the New York Supreme Court.

<i>Divorce Court</i> American television show

Divorce Court is an American court show that revolves around settling the disputes of couples going through divorces. The show has had four separate runs, all in first-run syndication. Since the debut of the original series in 1957, it is one of the longest-running syndicated television programs of all time. Divorce Court also holds the record for the longest-running court show of all time, leading the second-place show The People's Court by two years.

<i>Judge Joe Brown</i> American arbitration-based reality court show starring former criminal court judge Joseph B. Brown

Judge Joe Brown is an American arbitration-based reality court show starring former Shelby County, Tennessee criminal court judge Joseph B. Brown. It premiered on September 14, 1998 and ran through the 2012–13 television season for a total of fifteen seasons. Joe Brown was the second highest paid daytime television personality behind Judge Judy during the time the show was running.

Petri Hawkins-Byrd, better known as Bailiff Byrd or simply Byrd, is an American court show bailiff, television personality, social media personality, actor, voice actor, writer, and former New York State Court Officer.

Cristina Perez is an American actress, television personality, writer and TV judge.

<i>Judge Karen</i>

Judge Karen is an American arbitration-based reality court show that aired in first-run syndication and ran for one season, during the 2008-09 television period. The series debuted on September 8, 2008, in 48 of the top 50 U.S. markets.

Judge Jeanine Pirro is an American arbitration-based reality court show, presided over by retired Westchester County, New York, District Attorney Jeanine Pirro. The series debuted on The CW on September 22, 2008 and ended in May 2011.

Judge David Young is an American arbitration-based reality court show presided over by former Miami-Dade County Circuit Court Judge David Young. The series aired in first-run syndication. It premiered on television stations across the United States and Canada on September 10, 2007, and ran for 2 seasons until September 4, 2009.

<i>Lauren Lakes Paternity Court</i> Television series

Lauren Lake's Paternity Court is a nontraditional court show in which family lawyer and legal analyst Lauren Lake heard and ruled on paternity cases and rendered DNA test results.

<i>Judge Rinder</i> British arbitration-based reality court show

Judge Rinder is a British arbitration-based reality court show that has been on air on ITV since 11 August 2014. The show depicts Robert Rinder as an arbitrator overseeing civil cases. Rinder began his career in criminal law in 2003. He is a barrister and wears his barrister robes while on the show, but does not wear the wig as is customary in the judiciary. Rinder is a practising criminal barrister at 2 Hare Court Chambers in London and this is made clear on the show. As with other related court shows that inspired it, such as Judge Judy, Judge Mathis and The People's Court, any awards handed down by Rinder are paid by the production company rather than the loser.

<i>Hot Bench</i> American panel-based court show

Hot Bench is a nontraditional panel-based court show that made its debut in first-run syndication on September 15, 2014. The series is produced by Judge Judy's Judge Judy Sheindlin, who also created the program and concept with executive producers Randy Douthit, Maureen FitzPatrick, and David Theodosopoulos and supervising producer James Glover for CBS Media Ventures.

Jones & Jury is an American nontraditional arbitration-based reality court show presided over by former Brooklyn Prosecutor and District Attorney Star Jones.

<i>Judy Justice</i> American reality TV show

Judy Justice is an American streaming arbitration-based reality court show presided over by former Manhattan Family Court Judge Judith Sheindlin. Judy Justice is a spin-off of courtroom series Judge Judy (1996–2021). The show features Sheindlin adjudicating real-life small-claims disputes within a simulated courtroom set. Prior to the proceedings, all involved parties sign arbitration contracts agreeing to Sheindlin's ruling.

The first season of arbitration-based reality court show Judge Judy aired from September 16, 1996, to September 5, 1997, and consisted of 220 episodes. The season is currently streamed on ViacomCBS's Pluto TV courtroom station.

<i>Judge Steve Harvey</i> American reality comedy court show

Judge Steve Harvey is an American arbitration-based reality court comedy show hosted by Steve Harvey. The series premiered on ABC on January 4, 2022. Unlike most courtroom programming which airs in the daytime television bracket, Judge Steve Harvey airs in prime time. Also in contrast to most courtroom programming, which typically airs a new episode for each weekday, Judge Steve Harvey takes the approach of a sitcom television schedule, airing one new episode per week.


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