In Depth

Tough but Fair, Judge Judy Rules

Judith Sheindlin, otherwise known as Judge Judy, is an intimidating person. She’s direct, upfront and not afraid to let people know what’s on her mind. That toughness has translated into 13 years of syndication gold with CBS Television Distribution’s “Judge Judy,” whose average ratings are double those of its closest genre competitor.

Drawing on her roots as a New York family court judge, Ms. Sheindlin’s sights are on syndication as a whole, as she considers her real competition to be “Two and a Half Men” and “Oprah.”

Judge Judy

Although she’s quick to put litigants in their place, Ms. Sheindlin’s fierceness melts away when she steps off the set. Between cases, she plays gin rummy with her staff in the green room. She loves to talk about her children and grandchildren and is a strong advocate for pet adoption.

But Ms. Sheindlin’s success comes from her straight-shooting, direct approach, which has connected with viewers tired of long, drawn-out court proceedings that offer little resolution or satisfaction. Despite a wealth of accolades, including a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, Ms. Sheindlin has never won an Emmy, even in 2008, the first year of a category specifically for court shows. TelevisionWeek’s Andrew Krukowski met up on set with Judge Judy to discuss her prolonged success, her finely tuned “BS meter,” the dumbing down of daytime syndication and what’s next for her when her contract expires in 2013.

TelevisionWeek: How do you manage to stand out in such a tight genre, court shows? What advice do you have?

Judith Sheindlin: Do you think I’m going to give you the secret of what this program has been for 13 years? Way ahead of the pack? If I knew, I wouldn’t tell you. I suspect, but I’m not telling you.

I think that audiences will judge what they choose to see. And what kind of justice they feel comfortable with. If you’re watching a medical program, and you’re watching “ER,” or you’re watching “M*A*S*H,” or you’re watching “Grey’s Anatomy,” you decide what makes you feel comfortable with the kind of medical practice that exists in this country today. … Most [people] would say, “This is what I feel comfortable with. I feel comfortable watching a quirky doctor.”

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And some people would say, “I like to watch the softer side of it. I like to see who’s sleeping with whom. I like to see the social interactions of the doctors, and would like to see some patients get well while we’re at it.” So you watch something else. And I think the same thing is true with the court genre. … Those people decide what brand of justice they feel comfortable with. Understanding also that if it’s not entertainment, it’s not TV. …

People who have been involved in the court systems in this country know firsthand what some of the problems are: It takes too long. It’s often a frustrating process. When I was a litigator … I would get frustrated with the judges who, for really no apparent reason other than laziness and that they didn’t understand that the first prerequisite for being a judge was to make a decision, … didn’t make a decision. And the few great judges before whom I appeared knew that their job was to hear the facts, make a decision, give you a ruling. If you didn’t like the ruling, that’s what appellate courts are for. You can appeal the judgment, but in the meantime your case has gotten a full hearing. I’ve made a decision, the parties know where they’re going. And if you want to take it further? Your prerogative.

That to me is the right thing to do. So, that’s what I do. And I’ve learned to do it in a very concise way. … So this is a very comfortable forum for me. The cases are not life-altering, for the most part. They involve the minutiae of life, which can sometimes be irritating and can knock off-balance your equilibrium for a while. But if you let this stupid stuff invade your life, that means you’re nuts. That means you don’t have enough to do.

TVWeek: You’re known for having a finely tuned BS meter. What’s involved in cutting quickly through lies?

Ms. Sheindlin: I’m not giving away any trade secrets because I’m not done doing this courtroom program. But a general rule of thumb is: If you are a reasonable person, and you’ve had a reasonable upbringing and background, and of average intelligence, if something doesn’t make sense to you, it’s usually not true. Now, there are aberrational behaviors. If somebody came up to you and gave you a check for a million dollars, you’d say “This is too good to be true.” It’s not true. But every once in a while you’ll have somebody who will say, “You know what? I want to make somebody real happy today and I’m going to give them a million bucks.”

But most of the time, if it looks, smells and tastes too good to be true, it’s usually too good to be true. Ask those people who invested with Bernie Madoff. Everybody said he’s a nice, decent guy, but some people who were smart said, “You know what? This is too good to be true. Nobody can be that on target all the time. Just doesn’t sound right.” … And the next thing I always like to say is, “Follow the money.” If something doesn’t sound right to you, follow the money.

TVWeek: What is your favorite type of case to arbitrate?

Ms. Sheindlin: Family cases are more interesting to me because that’s where I came from—that’s my expertise.

TVWeek: What drew you to family court in the first place?

Ms. Sheindlin: That was my first job. But sometimes you just hit it lucky [and] land a job that happens to suit your skills. … My first job was in 1972. I had done some legal work before that, but in 1972 I got a job in family court and I found a home. And I found what I was best at, which are people. I get what makes people move, what motivates people to act, what emotions charge them, and I found sort of a natural order of things. Irrespective of how much money you have, how much education you have, there are things you can’t get away from, you know? … Things like jealousy, … anger, … betrayal, the things that dominate most people’s angst in life, which is what I saw in family court—I have an understanding of that. I don’t know how to log on to a computer, but I do understand that. If you do that, if you find that particular skill and you can fine-tune that into a career, that’s a gift, that’s the best gift.

TVWeek: What’s the fastest way to get on your wrong side in court?

Ms. Sheindlin: I think probably the fastest way to get on the wrong side of me is to believe that I’m stupid and that you’re going to pull one over…. Of course, on a far more visceral level, coming in dressed inappropriately will do it for me. Coming in looking as if you’re going to a beach party when in fact you’re supposed to be in the hallowed halls of justice, which is the way I try to keep the place. … If you watch some court programs, sometimes you will hear the audience hooting or hollering or clapping. You’re not going to hear that here for more than a second, because these people know that I don’t tolerate that, because it’s distracting and disrespectful to the system.

TVWeek: The most recent Daytime Emmys featured a separate category for court programs. Do you think it’s time the Emmys started recognizing court shows with their own Emmy?

Ms. Sheindlin: Absolutely. I mean, if you’re talking about the kind of programming that dominates daytime, you had game shows for a while, you have soaps, you have talk shows and you have court. … And I didn’t understand why they would make categories, like if you’re a talk show, you’re a talk show. … And yet the category had 13 specific kinds of genre programming, not talk shows that had two people, not talk shows that had four people, not informational talk shows, not entertainment talk shows. This was a category that was so logical to have, and yet because some people just had a bee in their bonnet and—because I’ve had a whole lot of nominations but no win, so I can say it—no rhyme or reason to their thinking, there was never a court show category.

Now, it came back to bite me in my adorable derriere, because this year was the first year we had a court category, and I didn’t win. (Laughter) But that’s not the point. The point of it is from the time seven or eight years ago, when court programs started to proliferate and there really was a basis for them to compete, there should have been [a category].

The problem is that the station that broadcasts the Emmys wants to be able to showcase their programming, which is usually soaps. So that’s what they promote. They promote that in who presents, they promote that in everything else, instead of saying, “Soaps are part of daytime, but they’re not all of daytime.” …

But there are clearly politics there that I don’t understand, nor do I care to understand, because it’s not relevant to my life. Is that honest enough for you? I will live my life happily without an Emmy. Of course, I must tell you that I built an entire room in my house to house an Emmy. And it would look lovely in that room. But it doesn’t affect my life.

TVWeek: But you do have a star on the Walk of Fame.

Ms. Sheindlin: I do. And to me, that’s a big deal. … And when my grandchildren came out and sat around my star and I have pictures of them sitting on Nana’s star, that’s a forever. … The perks of [an Emmy] would be nice, but I know that we have a loyal audience for whom we continue to provide quality programming that we’re careful about. We’re careful not to do stuff that I deem salacious. I like the fact that we have young people who watch us. …

I’m going to say something else before you get to another question, because as long as we’re doing a piece, we might as well get it all out there, right?

TVWeek: Sure.

Ms. Sheindlin: I think that programmers of daytime television have done a terrible disservice over the years to the people that watch television in the afternoon. What they have done in daytime TV for too long is to try and dumb it down. And I think that the people who watch daytime TV, the majority of whom are women, have had enough of hair makeovers and behind makeovers and breast makeovers. They want to be smarter. They want information. They want to be able to negotiate in the world a little bit better. They see a woman who almost became president of the U.S. They see other high-profile gals who are interesting, who have information, and they’re dying for information. And programmers today are giving people the same old boring fluff.

That’s why programs like “The View” soared during the election. Because for the first half-hour or so, there was lots of dialogue about what was current that people listen to. I mean, they didn’t just listen to it for the entertainment value of seeing four ladies screaming at one another. They listened to the perspective of those four…. I think Whoopi Goldberg is an extraordinarily intelligent woman. And Joy Behar has a fund of knowledge about politics that really belies the fact that she comes from a comedic background. And Elizabeth [Hasselbeck] has a perspective that is shared by 46 million people in this last election. … People were dying to hear them. So their numbers went up.

When we do this program, what I’ve always had in the back of my head is the people watching this program during the day want to be smarter. They don’t care what I look like. … They’re more interested in what I have to say, and how I say it, because how I say it is the entertainment value of it.

TVWeek: Do you have any conversations with sponsors at all?

Ms. Sheindlin: No. I take care of my business, everybody else takes care of their business. That’s the way we’ve run this shop since the day I started this program. I do not get involved in the minutiae of the day-to-day operations of this company. …

If a case is something that I really feel is lousy, I say, “I don’t want to do that case because I can see where it’s going, and it’s just going to be a lot of numbers.” That happens rarely. Maybe one in every 35 cases, I’ll say, “It just doesn’t do it for me,” for whatever reason. I do not speak to the producers who produce these cases. I think they are wonderful, talented people. They do their job. I do my job. I don’t tell them how to do their job. And I’m not interested in them telling me how to do my job. … I get here 7:30 in the morning. Besides craft services, I’m the first person on the lot. That’s why we start at 9:15. We will finish at 3:15. Normally. You’re here, it’s going to take longer.

TVWeek: (Laughing) I apologize.

Ms. Sheindlin: That’s the way you run a court program. That’s why we’re efficient. I do the cases. I don’t lecture about things that are meaningless to the case… That means we don’t have a lot of post-production. It’s lean.

This case that you just saw was worth five minutes or six minutes—that’s what it got. Some cases are worth more. They get more. They get a half-hour, they get a full show. I don’t time myself. You didn’t see me looking at my watch. When I’m finished, I’m finished, and you better not stop me in the middle of a case because somebody’s audio is not working, because that really pisses me off because I get on a roll. And the people are on a roll. So if I have to stop because a light is out, it really is annoying to me.

We run, and other people who have done other programs will tell you, it is probably the leanest, most efficient program in daytime because I don’t get sick. I don’t think we’ve ever canceled a day because of illness, other than when I had back surgery. …

TVWeek: What do you watch on TV?

Ms. Sheindlin: “Law & Order.” A lot of “Law & Order.” USA, Bravo, wherever it’s on. I’m a “Law & Order” junkie. … I watch television when I’m falling asleep, so … if my husband and I fall asleep before the end, we usually know what the end is because we’ve seen it four times before…. I’m not particularly enthralled with reality programming. If I want real, I can live with my own family. … Once in a while, I’ll sample, but we’re not big on that. I like the news. I like great documentaries. I came home yesterday, and my husband had just watched a channel where he learned to make umbrellas and candy canes. …

TVWeek: Do you watch any other court shows? Do you keep up on the competition?

Ms. Sheindlin: No. I don’t.

TVWeek: You’ve signed a contract with CBS Television Distribution through 2013. This begs the question, after 2013, what’s in the cards?

Ms. Sheindlin: What’s in the cards is I think you’re supposed to know when you’re supposed to say goodbye. And I’ve had an extraordinary run. Right now, the audience still seems to enjoy what we do. And our numbers are strong. And our place in daytime is strong. I don’t want to stay beyond my welcome. Nobody should stay beyond their welcome. If the show is still doing well, maybe we’ll continue to do it. If it’s starting to fall off, and I don’t want, I don’t need to be here. I have a wonderful family. I’ve got a cute husband. I have a life beyond this. I mean, I come here to work 50 days a year. The rest of the days, I know how to live. So this is not my life.

I don’t want to make an empire. That’s not what my goal is. Many people who find themselves in this position say, “Well, we want to extend our brand. We want to create other things. We want to produce other things.” I’ve never really been terribly interested in that. When I tried to get interested in it, somebody shot me down. So I said, what do I need that aggravation for? I’ve got a great life. I’ve got great kids. I’ve got terrific grandchildren. I love to travel. My husband loves to travel. We’re both feeling great. If it’s over, it’s over. So I don’t know. We’ll have to see.

TVWeek: There has been some criticism that you’ve been too harsh. How do you respond to that?

Ms. Sheindlin: If you don’t like it, don’t watch. That’s basically the answer. I have my own style of work. … I also know that 10 million people get something out of tuning in for an hour a day, every day, and seeing efficient, to-the-point, no-bull resolution of disputes that would otherwise gobble up court time ad nauseam. So there will always be critics unless I put a halo over my head, and did a lot of kumbayas and did a lot of understanding of irresponsible behavior. It’s not been my style. So, when I say you don’t like the style, don’t watch, I mean it.

I’m 66 years old. I’ve been involved in the law for 42 years. I’d like to think I know what’s right in the law. I’d like to think that after I hear a case, I’ve given the right result, whether it’s here or after much more lengthy and exhaustive evidence in family court.

If people didn’t like my judgments in the family court and didn’t like my style, there were critics there, too. I was probably among the least reversed family court judges in the city of New York. I became, without any politics, the supervising judge in the family court in New York. I trained judges for the office of court administration, despite the style, for 12 years. Every new batch of judges that came into the family court, I trained, because there is a way to administer justice efficiently and not.

TVWeek: What specific thing would you hope that viewers take away from your show in its 13 seasons?

Ms. Sheindlin: That life is a series of acts and consequences. And if you do the right thing, hopefully the right thing will happen for you. And if you make a mistake and do something wrong, you’re better off accepting responsibility, try to make it right, put a period and move on. That way, you can start out with almost a clean slate. But you’re not promulgating that mistake. I think accepting responsibility for one’s behavior is what I try to actively and subliminally try to project.

TVWeek: In terms of the contract negotiations, was there anyone besides CBS Television Distribution who pursued you for distribution of “Judy?”

Ms. Sheindlin: No. I believe in leaving the dance with the same person you came with if you can, if they are being gentlemanly. As long as CBS Television Distribution was being gentlemanly, I was going to leave the dance at the end of the day with the company that I came with. And I do my own negotiation. I do not have a lawyer, an agent, a manager. We sit down with the president of the company. I tell them what I want. They say yes. They say no. And we’ve been able to have a profitable relationship.

Life has enough stressors, I don’t believe in adding to stressors, which is why I don’t do a lot of other things despite the fact that I could. I think that if you play it smart, you can have it all. You can have a great family … and you come to work. And somebody else can be an entrepreneurial icon. Business was never my strong suit. I do what I do. I believe in very simple things, like Erma Bombeck, who said, “Never leave the job that brought you to the table.” … I know what I know, and I stick with it and have a good time.