The Popularity of TV Judge Shows
The television judge show has become its own genre, and these courtroom TV programs are especially popular in New York City
Ever since The People's Court began bringing small claims court cases to the small screen in the early 1980s, TV viewers have loved judge shows. As one of the earlier forms of reality TV, The People's Court combined petty small claims cases and courtroom drama in one neat package. With cranky Judge Wapner presiding, fans of the show got a kick out of watching mean old Wapner berate everyone around him. When judge shows regained popularity again in the '90s, it's no surprise that it was tell-it-like-it-is Judge Judy Sheindlin - surely an heir to the Wapner throne - who led the way.
The Divorce Court, which began in 1986, was the other popular judge show of the '80s, but a key difference is that this one featured actors playing the defendants and plaintiffs, while the cases were (supposedly) based on real-life divorce cases. Both The Divorce Court and People's Court had versions going back as early as the '50s, but these were entirely fictional, from the actors to the cases. They were just presented in a pseudo-realistic courtroom style.
As mentioned before, Judge Judy injected some life into the judge show genre. Other sassy judges followed, and TV producers started looking for interesting types of judges to entertain viewers. There has been the former U.S Marine judge (Judge Mills Lane), the judge who was once a gang member and drug dealer (Judge Greg Mathis), the campy gay judge (Judge David Young), the judge who grew up in South Central (Judge Joe Brown), and the list goes on. During the daytime, it's hard to find a channel that doesn't feature someone with a black robe and gavel.
Of course, the reality is that those be-robed individuals are just in costume. And that's not a real courtroom you're looking at either - it's a set. Although they are judges, the judge TV show justices are performing the service of binding arbitration, a legal process that is usually carried out at a conference table. The plaintiffs and defendants agree to enter into binding arbitration and accept the declared outcome, but they are also being paid by the show's producers for appearing on the TV show. What you're seeing is a genuine legal decision, but almost everything else is just for show.
Nonetheless, people love to watch these judge shows. For one, the charade is pretty convincing and many viewers have no idea that what they're watching isn't a real courtroom proceeding. The judges are a large part of the draw. Judge TV show fans usually either enjoy watching a favorite no-nonsense judge doling out "justice", or they're drawn to the love-to-hate-'em judges whose unfair decisions they like to complain about. There is also a major element of schadenfreude (i.e. enjoyment in other people's pain or folly) for many judge show viewers, who like to watch the parade of petty feuds.
There has been a proliferation of these judge shows in New York City over the last few years. The People's Court (most recently featuring Judge Marilyn Milian at the helm) has filmed in NYC since 1997, as have Judge Hatchett, Judge Karen, Judge David Young, and others. Though it has had its ups and downs, The People's Court has had the most staying power, while others like Judge Hatchett have been canceled after a few good years. If the judge TV show genre continues in popularity, there will likely be many more robe-wearing gavel-bangers to come - each one with his or her own colorful personality too.