homepage.GIF (4983 bytes)silverscreen.GIF (5602 bytes)smallscreen.GIF (5377 bytes)News&views.GIF (5838 bytes)archive.gif (5286 bytes)

Real Court Television

by Michael Asimow, UCLA Law School (September 1998) 

Here come the judges. Judge Judy, People’s Court, and Judge Mills Lane are gaveling their way right through daytime TV with two more real court television shows about to debut. And then there’s the spoof of Judge Judy now running on the Playboy Channel. 

Leading the pack is Judge Judy with the acerbic Judge Judy Scheindlin on the bench. This show is now in its fourth season. Judge Scheindlin was a New York family court judge for many years before becoming a TV star. The revival of People’s Court is into its second season with former New York City mayor Ed Koch wielding the gavel. This fall Judge Mills Lane joined the pack. Judge Lane is a former Nevada state judge and boxing referee who labels himself "America’s judge." 

According to the Los Angeles Times, in a few weeks Judge Joe Brown (starring a Memphis judge) will debut. And, for a trip down memory lane, the beloved Judge Wapner (the old star of People’s Court) is about to resurface in Animal Court on the Animal Planet cable network. As strange as this sounds, it will probably differ little from the other shows, which frequently feature disputes about pets. Earlier plans for former LA prosecutor Vince Bugliosi to host another real court show have apparently been scrapped. 

Judge Judy has received the ultimate tribute—she’s being spoofed by "Judge Julie" whose Sex Court is now running on the Playboy Channel. Judge Julie dresses in a much more provocative manner than her competition. According to Playboy’s website , one of Judge Julie’s cases concerns a woman whose boyfriend has a video of her between the sheets. She’s trying to prevent him from marketing the video. As a dedicated nonsubscriber to this premium channel, however, I can’t give you any more information on Judge Julie. 

Real court shows involve actual, unscripted disputes between real people. A judge hears the testimony; after a commercial break, the judge hands down a decision. The judge handles the trial in an inquisitorial manner. There are no lawyers. The judge fires questions at the litigants (or the occasional non-party witness) in an attempt to get at the truth. The parties don’t get to ask any questions. 

Typically the cases center on sharp disputes about credibility with each litigant calling the other a liar. The cases concern relatively small matters which can be easily understood but the litigants are passionately involved. Watching all three shows, I saw an assortment of the kinds of cases one would expect to see in small claims court. 

A nasty dispute about cell phone charges between a mother and daughter (the judge’s staff had researched the bills to see where the calls had gone).

A dispute between neighbors about a pit bull that killed a cat. 

A landlord-tenant dispute about whether rent had been paid and whether the apartment was damaged. 

A dispute between a restaurant owner (white) and some customers (African-American) whom he threw out of the restaurant. 

A dispute in which a model claimed she was entitled to get paid for a topless shoot but the defendant claimed that she would get paid only if the photo won a contest.

The parties are compensated for their appearance on the shows in a way that preserves their incentives. People’s Court explains that the litigants will share a fund (the size of which depends on the size of the amount in dispute). Depending on the judge’s decision, either the plaintiff or the defendant will get a larger share of the fund. Thus the defendant doesn’t really have to pay the damages and the plaintiff gets paid something for her trouble even though she loses the case. Nevertheless the parties have a definite financial stake in the decision because the division of the fund depends on the judge’s decision.

There are substantial differences between the shows. Judge Judy is extremely strict and maintains careful control of the trial. She does not allow the litigants to interrupt one another. She feels free to lecture the parties, especially if she senses that someone has acted irresponsibly. Indeed, she often tells them off. 

Judge Koch lets the parties mix it up more—they frequently get into shouting matches with each other and seem close to coming to blows on screen. However, he tries to joke around with the parties and renders his decision without berating them. People’s Court is into gimmicks. You can email your opinion of how the trial is going and who should win. Thus we have a currently updated guide to the public’s reaction. Attorney Harvey Levin views the trial in shopping malls with a dozen or so shoppers who are invited to express their opinions about the litigants and about the judge’s decision after it’s handed down. He also dispenses legal advice suggested by the dispute ("always get a receipt if you pay your rent in cash…") The litigants also have a chance to express their opinions about the verdict after it’s handed down. 

Judge Lane is still developing his style; he seems more strict than Koch but less strict than Scheindlin. His show is pretty plain vanilla and lacks gimmicks. He does look very tough however, as befits a former Marine, boxer, and boxing referee. (Lane was the referee in the infamous Mike Tyson-Evander Holyfield ear biting fight). 

The question is why so many viewers are tuning into these shows. Personally, I find them both annoying and tedious. What am I missing? Judge Judy is whacking the competition in Los Angeles and appears twice each weekday. People are watching and there are plenty of sponsors. From the point of view of producers and local stations, obviously the shows are relatively cheap to stage, at least as compared to a soap opera. Yet what’s the explanation for their appeal to viewers? I can think of several theories. 

People seem obsessed with law and are fascinated by judges and trials; perhaps they feel that they will learn something useful for their own lives by watching the shows. Perhaps this curiosity was stoked by the endless TV coverage of the OJ trial. People’s Court recognizes the function of the shows as self-help manuals by dispensing little dollops of legal advice after each case. 

Unlike talk shows, the real court shows have resolution. The judge always decides the case before our eyes. Somebody wins, somebody loses. But on a talk show, bad people can walk away without any consequences and victims don’t get any redress. I think viewers hunger for quick, definitive resolutions to big messy problems. 

Another theory is that real court shows should be viewed as game shows. When you watch Jeopardy you match wits with the contestants. Here you match wits with the judge. Will the judge resolve the credibility dispute the same way you did? Did you know the law before the judge stated it? Will he/she apply the law the same way you would have applied it? In this sense, the court shows can be viewed as participatory. People’s Court recognizes this important point by making itself interactive. You can actually register your opinion by sending an email and ordinary shoppers in the mall get to sound off about how they would have decided the case.  

A taste for verbal violence is also involved. The litigants get really nasty toward each other. And Judge Judy gets really nasty to them. Judge Koch doesn’t abuse the litigants but he allows the litigants to yell at each other. Thus the same people who like professional wrestling or Jerry Springer may be attracted to real court shows. It’s a bit like the pleasure of watching a barroom brawl when you don’t have to get punched yourself.  

But something else is at work here. A key point is that real people are airing real disputes in an unscripted hearing. Viewers seem to have a hunger for this sort of reality—to see the problems of people just like themselves. Some of it, no doubt, is the pleasure of being a voyeur—you get to poke your nose into other people’s personal quarrels. 

More fundamentally, though, I think many people today are quite isolated. Daytime TV viewers may feel stuck at home—perhaps unemployed or retired, perhaps watching small kids. They may be lonely. They may not know anyone on their street, may have nobody to talk to on the phone, may be far from family. If they have a partner at all, that person is away for the day. As you watch the commercials on daytime TV for vocational schools or lawyers to help in your workers’ comp case, you get the feeling that a lot of people who are watching wish they could go to work. Real court shows offer a vicarious relationship with real people. This may be more enticing than watching actors play roles in fictitious stories on soap operas. 

How else to explain the enormous success of jennicam.org? For those who haven’t heard of it, this is one of the most popular sites on the internet. It’s said to receive half a million hits per day. A young woman named Jenni works at home as a website designer. Cameras are running in her apartment 24 hours a day. And you just watch whatever she’s doing; she may be sleeping, eating pizza, dressing, hanging out with her boyfriend, or playing with her cat. If you subscribe ($15 per year) you get a new picture two minutes. There are said to be ten to fifteen thousand "members." But you can pop in as a "guest" for free and get a picture that’s updated every twenty minutes. 

Why are people interested in Jenni’s humdrum life? To me, it seems inexpressibly boring. I really can’t say, but it must have something to do with the fact that Jenni is a real person who has opened up her life to anyone who cares to visit. And, people seem to have a hunger for human contact—even contact of this third-rate variety. In interviews, Jenni says that she gets a great amount of mail from people telling her their life story. Evidently, these people have decided that they really know her. [Warning: if you visit this site, avoid jennicam.com which is a hard-core pornography site free-riding on Jenni’s success. The correct address is jennicam.org 

And then there’s The Truman Show, one of this year’s truly outstanding films. As everyone must know, the premise of the film is that Truman Burbank (superbly played by Jim Carrey) is the star of a 24-hour a day soap opera but doesn’t know it. Everyone else on the show, including his wife and boss, are acting but Truman goes about his life (on a gigantic set) thinking it is real. Personally, I found this one of the scariest movies I have ever seen—because the premise is so horribly plausible. Especially the part about the huge worldwide audience that follows avidly every trivial detail of Truman’s life. At this point, after watching the real court TV shows and pondering the success of jennicam.org, it is entirely believable that billions of people would actually care about watching Truman get up in the morning, eat his breakfast, chat with his "wife," greet his neighbors, and go to work. 

I would like to acknowledge the work of my student Samantha Slipock, whose excellent paper "Judge Judy and The People’s Court: The Phenomenon of the ‘Real Court’ Television Genre," drew my attention to these shows and furnished some of the material in this article. Her take on the popularity of the genre is that it feeds off of the unpopularity of lawyers—people approve of a justice system without lawyers in which litigants and the judge come up with justice on their own. She also believes that the shows allow people to keep an eye on the court system which they distrust. Anyone who wants a copy of Ms. Slipock’s paper can email me at asimow@law.ucla.edu and I’ll send you a copy.

Michael AsimowMichael Asimow, of UCLA Law School, is co-author with Paul Bergman of Reel Justice: The Courtroom Goes to the Movies (1996), available at local bookstores or through amazon.com.


Click here for studio websiteOfficial program site for  Judge Judy 

Click here for reader commentsComments of other readers

Click here to send mail Mailbox for reply to Picturing Justice commentaries