In Depth

Brown Holds Court in a Packed Field

CBS Television Distribution’s “Judge Joe Brown” entered its 11th season in 2008, holding on to second place in the ratings in the syndicated court show genre for a majority of its run.

TVWeek’s Andrew Krukowski sat down with “Brown” executive producer John Terenzio, who joined the show in 2003, to discuss the difficulty of cultivating a name in a plentiful field of court programs, the future of the genre and how cases end up moving from small claims to television.

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TelevisionWeek: What does Judge Joe Brown offer that no other show in the genre offers?

John Terenzio: Well, we find there’s a couple of things. … We’re the No. 2-rated court show. So “Judge Joe Brown” offers to the audience a judge who they’re familiar with, they have a longstanding viewership with, they’ve gotten to know over the years. That’s number one.

Number two, they see Judge Joe Brown consistently in all of our research as one of the most if not the most trusted judge. And that’s an incredibly important dynamic for any of these judges. The first thing people will tell you is that they need to trust the judge. The judges who rate well are the judges that people trust for their opinion, for their wisdom, for their judgment, and clearly Joe carries that mantle. And we see that consistently.

Joe is a person who is very passionate about the law and about his cases, and one of the ways that you in effect stoke that passion is to bring him good cases with passionate litigants. And that’s one of our mantras. We will bring him contests, because every case is a contest, right? And we bring him contests we hope that are fought by passionate litigants, people who really believe. And when we bring that ingredient in front of him into the courtroom, then that stokes his passion, and it comes through.

So now all of a sudden the viewer has really a pretty exciting program in front of them, from a number of dynamics. From an emotional dynamic, in terms of seeing the passion people feel about their case, in seeing how Joe feels passionately about the law, and then of course the resolution that he provides. And they trust that his judgment and what he does is the right thing. So I think that’s what we bring.

TVWeek: Can you talk a little bit about the case selection process?

Mr. Terenzio: Sure. Well, we select our cases a number of ways. The vast majority of our cases, or the majority of our cases, and I’ve never really put a number on it, I’m going to suggest to you it’s about 75% of the cases, come from a universe of small claims courts. We share with our sister show “Judge Judy,” our sister CTD show, we share with them a network of 60 courtroom stringers around the country. These are stringers who go into courtrooms that we’ve selected around the country and they pull cases. And every week those cases come here to Los Angeles. And every week our producers are given a stack of cases, it’s literally this tall, it’s amazing. And we divide them up among our producers, and our producers are pretty experienced now at going through them and seeing what may qualify for the kind of case we want on our show. They look at those cases, they obviously get on the phone if they find some they think are qualified, that are attractive. They call the litigants, they get pretty intense background—we’re very proactive, on our show anyway, about background. And we’re sticklers for accuracy and for background. We will even, if we feel that it’s important for the case and important for Joe, we will pull rap sheets, from public records, of course.

So, they go through all that process and then every Tuesday prior to a [taping] they come to us, the producers, and they in effect pitch their cases. And our producers are terrific. And I would suggest to you that the vast majority of the cases they pitch to us we accept. There’s only a minority of the cases that the pitch to us that we reject, and we think that’s because they really know what we want and they do a terrific job. So that’s how those cases come.

The other 25% we’re getting almost exclusively from e-mail, from our Web site. And this is something that we’ve been very aggressive about in the last four years, about building a Web site that people can access, and then utilizing that Web site for many things, but among them for people to go ahead and propose cases to us. Now, if we accept a case off the Web site, we require those people to still go and file in small claims court in their jurisdiction, so that we’re consistent in that sense. But it is a good place to find cases. And, as we try to keep the show skewing younger, the Internet is just a very good place for us to find cases.

TVWeek: Can the genre itself support this many shows entering into it? What about the genre itself is so alluring to producers?

Mr. Terenzio: I think the way you have to look at the health of the genre is as a whole. In other words, if there were seven or eight court shows on the air last year or the year before, for example, and you’re suggesting or someone is suggesting that their ratings may be diluted because there are now 10 or 11 court shows, well, that’s true individually speaking.

I look at the health of the genre on a cumulative basis. How many points, cumulatively, are all of those shows collecting? If they’re still collecting a lot of points, rating points, and they are, then you’ve got a healthy genre.

Now, within that genre, there is, you’re right, some finite number. And obviously we don’t quite know what it is, because it’s up to individual distributors to decide how financially healthy it is to keep a show on the air. Obviously “Judy” and “Joe” are in pretty good shape, because we’re No. 1 and 2, and as you go down, I think below perhaps No. 6, then you would have to look at them from a monetary point of view and say, “Is it worth it?”

But I think you’ll always see—or not always, but for a long time, for the near future anyway—continue to see a proliferation, so that if those shows that monetarily don’t quite make it fall out, I think you’ll see others come in because of the cumulative effect. …

But if you want to look at the health of the genre, you have to look at it cumulatively, and I think it still looks like a very healthy genre. And then, of course, the cost of producing these shows is hat in hand. The fact of the matter is that, somewhat similar to the game show production format, they’re very efficient economically to produce, right? There’s no day-and-date involved, we can put together a lot of shows during one day’s taping, and so they’re very efficient in that sense.

TVWeek: Where do you see the future of the genre going?

Mr. Terenzio: I’ve been in the syndication business for a while, so I’ve seen genres kind of come and go, and the talk genre is a great example, right? You had all those proliferations of shows in the ’80s, and then they started to tail out, and you’ve had some few survive—I don’t see in the near future and I don’t know which—you know, five years, let me just pick a number—I don’t see it changing. It appears healthy. They’re efficient to produce. People love the resolution in court shows, and I think that is such an important dynamic. It is the great leap forward from most talk shows, in the sense that you have motion and you have conflict and you have, in the case of a court show, a contest, but you have resolution to it. So I see a very healthy genre. Not for every show, because some—because of time periods, etc., etc., may fall out along the way—but as I said, I also think that those that fall out will be replaced. And I think people keep developing them. And economically I think they make an enormous amount of sense. So I think it’s healthy and it’s around for the foreseeable future.

TVWeek: Is there a particular case in your mind that stands out as one of the best?

Mr. Terenzio: (Laugh) You know, we do so many of them, and there’s so many that I enjoy, still to this day, that I can probably go back about 24 to 48 hours—this is the third day of a three-day tape session, is about as far as I can possibly go back and figure it all out. You know, in answer to your question.

But I will tell you this. Any time, as we did today, any time you have a relationship case, you generally have the ingredients of a case, where with a great judge on the bench, and Joe is, where he can … change gears. So that, when you have a relationship case, like any relationship, there are parts of it, even though they’re in here for a contest, that are actually funny. And then as you get deeper into it, there are parts of it that are actually kind of sad. And you find even in the control room, you find us oohing and aahing and going, “Oh, that’s too bad.” And then there’s a moral to the story and that’s where he really jumps in, where the judge jumps in.

I think when we have those cases, as we had today between two women who were partners, one with a child, and who had had a disagreement that led them to moving out—and then they had split apart and then one had come back and one had destroyed some of the other one’s personal property—you had the dynamic of a judge having to decide the legality in the disposition of the personal property, and then lending what touch he could to two people who clearly still were very much in love. And moving them kind of out of the courtroom with resolution, but with also this dynamic of, this emotional dynamic of, “You know what? There’s still something there between you and maybe you two ought to just go and figure it out, and maybe you’ll capture it again.” So, it’s those kinds of things that continually resound with me. We laugh a lot back there, but we also kind of go, “Oh, that’s too bad, and that’s actually touching,” and you may not believe that for as many as we do, but we still do. So I think that’s kind of refreshing.