Aggrieved by CBS, Judge Judy eyes a streaming future

Messy business dealings over her syndicated show provoked Judith Scheindlin to bring her courtroom talent to Amazon's free streamer IMDb TV.
(Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons/Graphic by The Desk)

In 2011, the crown of daytime television queen passed from Oprah Winfrey to Judith Scheindlin when the former decided to end her eponymous syndicated talk show that served local broadcast affiliates well.

With the title change came a nice payday for the courtroom personality better known as “Judge Judy,” and with that check came the promise of delivering ratings that were equally high, if not higher, than the ones marked by Winfrey’s three decades-long tenure.

Scheindlin, now 78, delivered on those promises, giving television syndicate Paramount Domestic Television (later CBS Television Distribution, and now CBS Media Ventures) the highest-rated daytime talk program in the country, a position that has been largely sustained despite a growing trend of audiences ditching expensive cable and satellite packages for cheaper streaming options.

Some are still, apparently, breaking out the rabbit ears to tune in to Judge Judy on a weekly basis: The show grabs an average of more than 8 million viewers, putting it higher in the ratings than syndicated game shows “Wheel of Fortune” and “Jeopardy!”

But the gravy train at ViacomCBS is about to come to an end: This year marks the last production season for “Judge Judy,” one that was cut short by the ongoing coronavirus health pandemic that forced Scheindlin to hunker down in New York City (where she previously served as a lawyer, and later as a family court judge) and Naples, Florida (where she lives with her jurist husband).

Starting soon, Scheindlin will take her skills as an arbitrator to the streaming world: Last year, she inked a blockbuster deal with Amazon to bring a new courtroom-based program to the tech company’s free, ad-supported streaming service IMDb TV.

In an interview with the Wall Street Journal, Scheindlin pointed to a number of reasons for her recent decision to jump from traditional broadcast television to the world of streaming. For one, the recent political unrest in the United States caused her to tune out cable news for the comforts of classic films on streaming services, she said.

The streaming world will also allow Scheindlin to develop a show that could yield in higher awards for litigants who agree to abandon their claims in actual courtrooms in exchange for having Scheindlin decide them as an arbitrator (despite her nickname, she is not technically a judge in the legal sense while on television). Previously, Scheindlin was limited to $5,000 awards — the most that can be sought in some small claims courts, but also the most that the show’s producers were willing to pay out, with both the plaintiffs and the defendants earning an appearance fee for unfolding their case before a television audience.

At Amazon, that number could be bumped up, the Wall Street Journal said. Amazon, one of the wealthiest companies in the world, would likely be able to absorb the cost of cases brought in which plaintiffs are seeking higher amounts of damage awards. The newspaper said producers may look beyond traditional physical and financial injury cases, including surrogate courts, to settle more-complicated issues that could prove just as entertaining for the new show.

But the newspaper article strongly suggested that one of the biggest reasons Scheindlin abandoned her highly-rated syndicated program was due to business decisions made by CBS Media Ventures — some of which involved her, and some that did not.

Bucking a customary trend in the entertainment industry, Scheindlin does not use an agent — she negotiates all of her television contracts herself, and does so directly with the decision-making powers at the media companies seeking to employ her.

In 2015, Scheindlin attempted to secure the rights to classic episodes of “Judge Judy” and began testing the value of those shows by casually shopping them around to other television distributors. CBS ultimately decided to buy her out, paying $99 million for the rights to the shows.

Those shows are now being streamed on Pluto TV, an ad-supported streaming service acquired by Viacom in early 2019. Viacom and CBS Corporation merged a few months after the acquisition.

Further aggrieving Scheindlin was a decision by CBS to move the courtroom program “Hot Bench,” which she co-created, to other channels or a later time slot in order to accommodate a new daytime talk program hosted by actress Drew Barrymore last fall.

The move had the potential to disrupt Hot Bench’s relatively high ratings in exchange for propping up Barrymore’s show, Scheindlin complained.

“You disrespected my creation,” Scheindlin complained of CBS to the Journal. “And you were wrong. Not only in disrespecting my creation, but your gamble in what you put in its place.”

The ratings drop did not come to fruition: Hot Bench continues to draw more than 2 million viewers on a weekly basis. Barrymore’s talk show has been largely seen as a flop, earning a little more than one-quarter of Hot Bench’s viewing numbers in a good week.

Though the situation didn’t result in a ratings drop, it did leave Scheindlin with a bitter taste in her mouth. Last November, her production company announced its deal with Amazon.

Under that deal, Amazon has guaranteed Scheindlin’s new program — which has no title, though Scheindlin told the Journal she prefers the name “Justice Judy” — at least one season. Scheindlin and her production team will create 120 episodes of the show, the Journal said, less than one-half the number of episodes she produced while under contract with ViacomCBS.

While Scheindlin may be aggrieved, ViacomCBS offered nothing but praise for her.

“We have had an incredibly successful relationship with Judy over the last 25 years,” Steve LoCascio, a ViacomCBS executive, told the newspaper in a statement. “It has been an honor representing her show, and just like there has never been another Oprah, there will never be another Judge Judy.”

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