Court Shows Start Firing Up Syndie Engine

Dec 4, 2006  •  Post A Comment

The rush among television stations to fill their 2007-08 schedules is starting with the bang of a gavel.

Fox-owned and -operated stations picked up Sony Pictures Television’s “Judge David Young,” which becomes the first new syndicated first-run show to get national distribution for the fall season. The Fox stations also renewed a pair of courtroom pillars, “Divorce Court” and “Judge Alex,” from the station group’s programming arm, Twentieth Television.

The investment in the court-show genre comes a little more than a month before the syndication business’ biggest annual event, the National Association of Television Program Executives conference, and marks the start of a yearly round of dealmaking. The Fox group is turning to a genre that’s posting a better record with audiences than talk shows as stations seek low-cost programming that will keep audiences and advertisers from defecting.

“Our goal is to help stations grow their audiences with advertiser-friendly programming. Court is one of the most dominant forces in daytime with an 11 percent growth over the past three years,” said John Weiser, president of distribution for Sony Pictures Television. “We met with Judge David Young, and it is his great sense of humor coupled with his compelling personality that motivated us to develop this show around him.”

Sony is among syndication companies that have struggled to expand their first-run programming slate in recent years. The company for 2006 has three of its own first-run Monday-through-Friday shows. The pick up of “Judge David Young” puts Sony in position to increase its total to four shows for 2007, provided the company’s freshman talk show, “Greg Behrendt,” hangs on for a second season.

“Behrendt” is posting a 0.8 average household rating for the season, tying it for last place among talk shows with NBC Universal’s “Megan Mullally,” according to Nielsen Media Research. That compares with the 2.1 season average rating that King World’s first-year competitor “Rachel Ray” is posting.

For Sony, the pickup of “Judge David Young” adds a third court show to the syndicator’s docket, joining “Judge Hatchett” and “Judge Maria Lopez.” Sony is bringing back “Lopez” despite a 0.9 average rating for the year, which places it at the bottom of court-show ratings. Stations covering 91 percent of U.S. viewers will keep the program on board for the second-season of its two-year deal.

“Judge David Young” becomes the first new first-run strip to gain national distribution for the fall season, clearing 55 percent of the country, including 17 out of the top 20 markets for the 2007-08 season. Stations from the Fox, CBS, and Sinclair groups have all signed on for the series.

Station clearances in the top 10 markets include Fox-owned and -operated outlets in New York (WNYW/WWOR), Los Angeles (KTTV/KCOP-TV), and Chicago (WPWR-TV/WFLD-TV), as well as CBS-owned and -operated properties in Philadelphia (KYW-TV/WPSG-TV), San Francisco (KBCW-TV/KPIX-TV) and Boston (WBZ-TV/WSBK-TV)

Several Sinclair markets are also cleared, including Baltimore (WBFF-TV/WNUV-TV), Raleigh (WLFL-TV/WRDC-TV), Cincinnati (WSTR-TV) and Milwaukee (WVTV/WCGV-TV).

Nationally known for giving jail time to two drunken America West pilots as well as sentencing an 87-year-old woman to 30 years in jail for murder because she showed no remorse, Judge Young is a three-time recipient of the Mothers Against Drunk Driving Award of Distinction.

A graduate of the University of Miami College of Law, he was elected county court Judge in 1992 and held the position until 2000. In 2001, he was elected circuit court judge in Miami-Dade County. He will continue in that current position until next year, when he will step down from the elected bench to take up residence on the syndicated series.

The addition of “Judge David Young” and possibly more courtroom shows may push the genre’s total count into double digits for 2007. While this has left some analysts wondering if audience fatigue will set in, recent history shows that the shows are among the most stable in television.

Six of the nine current court shows have aired for at least seven years and 11 of the 12 court shows launched in the past decade by the major studios have run four or more seasons. By comparison, only eight of 44 talk shows to debut over the past decade have lasted that long, marking an 18 percent success rate. “One thing we’ve learned about the court-show genre is that the audience takes the genre very seriously,” said Bob Cook, president and chief operating officer of Twentieth Television.

Twentieth has confirmed it will bring back two of its syndication workhorses. “Divorce Court” with host Judge Lynn Toler will return for another run, with stations covering 71 percent of the country currently renewed. Meanwhile, “Judge Alex” will come back for its third year in the deal, reaching a 70 percent clearance level.

The series will return to the Fox group as well as stations in Miami (WBFF-TV), Raleigh (WLFL-TV), Nashville (WZTV) and Cincinnati (WXIX-TV). Twentieth also is in discussions with stations for a potential second year of “Cristina’s Court.”

Although both “Divorce Court” and “Judge Alex” are down in the ratings year-to-year, both remain stalwarts of the Fox station group’s lineup. The programs’ audience declines were largely attributable to the group’s decision to bolster weaker stations in duopoly markets such as New York by moving the two court shows from the stronger station.

“These are series that viewers will return to time and time again because our judges have personalities that can bring a sense of levity to the proceedings without compromising them,” Mr. Cook said. “Both `Divorce Court’ and `Judge Alex’ beat more than half of the talk shows that are currently out there and our stations are pleased with these results.”