The beginning of the 1980s was considered a desert for fans of unscripted daytime television, After a decade where game show production, both for broadcast networks and first-run syndication, reached an all-time high, the success of only a scant few, coupled with many of the 70s hits running their course, resulted in pivots on the part of most of those outlets toward reruns.
Talk shows did proliferate, but formats had become repetitive and stagnant, with the likes of Mike Douglas, Merv Griffin, Dinah Shore and–gasp–John Davidson essentially doing the same tried-and-true variety format. A misguided attempt to build a more ambitious and younger-appeal program around David Letterman diminshed the appetite for new content still further. Reruns were seen as the easiest and cheapest way to get ratings points and minimize risk. Networks who controlled rights to more recent successes before they were made available to local stations took full advantage of their negotiated rights to fill time slots. And very few people had any idea what else to do.
Fottunately, Ralph Edwards had been around since the days of radio, and he certainly was around in the late 50s and early 60s when daytime television had several shows set in courtrooms. The original DIVORCE COURT, and a show called DAY IN COURT were modest successes, and traded off the robust success that PERRY MASON and similar shows had in primetime. But these were scripted shows, essentially lower-cost versions of soap operas, made all the more efficient because they had no continuing storyline. Hence his interest was piqued when an idea that had been languishing for a few years presented itself to him, per Wikipedia:
When John Masterson devised the original camera-in-court concept in 1975, he first pitched it to Monty Hall, the producer and host of the game show Let’s Make a Deal, and his partner, producer-writer Stefan Hatos. They put a young associate, Stu Billett, in charge of selling it, but the networks were not interested. Billett later went out on his own and refined the concept into a show shot in a studio rather than a real courtroom. Small-claims court participants agreed to drop their court cases and accept binding arbitration in a simulated courtroom. The networks expressed interest, but still did not buy it; however, it did sell into the first-run syndication market. The series was executive produced by Ralph Edwards, who also created and hosted the documentary show This Is Your Life, and Stu Billett, who later went on to create Moral Court. John Masterson, whom many consider a pioneer and originator of “reality TV” also created Bride and Groom and Breakfast in Hollywood.
Ralph and Stu were able to find an equally motivated game-changer in the nascent Telepictures distribution company, led by the creative and aggressive Dick Robertson, who we have written about before. The unique aspect of the original PEOPLE’S COURT incorporated a game-show like environment–real people, airing grievances in front of an audiences, with the promise of resolution within half an hour, and actual compensation at stake. Add to that the casting of the appealing retired judge Joseph A. Wapner to preside over this as a de facto “host” and, voila, there were options to reruns. Many local stations pre-empted daytime reruns for this ambitious new format, with Robertson and his team pushing the successes of early adopters to dubious stations who joined the bandwagon later on. And it created a true cottage industry for Telepictures, which followed the success of PEOPLE’S COURT with other iterations and personalities, as did numerous competitors. Even DIVORCE COURT came back, this time with actual divorcees.
Not only did the courtroom genre proliferate, but it also reignited game show production. The broadcast networks re-expanded their development, syndicators began to offer more original game and courtroom shows, and rerun availabilties were moved up to allow local stations access to more shows earlier, which increased their ratings and indeed created successful independent stations out of nowhere as a result.
THE PEOPLE’S COURT became a cultural phenomenon. Dustin Hoffman won an Oscar for his performance in RAIN MAN of an autistic adult whose entire daily routine was dominated by his devotion to the show. “Five Minutes To Wapner” was a catchphrase that inspired a modestly successful punk band. It dominated time slots and was the driving force in moving Telepictures and the Robertson crew farther and farther up the Hollywood ladder until they eventually rose to run Warner Brothers.
Which is why this past week’s announcement about the current incarnation of the show, and a stablemate, was all the more upsetting to many daytime fans. As veteran Jon Lafayette of Broadcasting and Cable reported:
Long-running syndicated court series Judge Mathis and The People’s Court are being cancelled at the end of the season by Warner Bros., part of cash-strapped Warner Bros. Discovery.
Judge Mathis will be completing its 24th season. People’s Court is winding up Season 26.
Sources familiar with the situation blamed challenging market conditions within the daytime syndication business as contributing to the decision.
Judge Mathis is the second longest running court show with a single arbiter that was never canceled or revived, following only Judge Judy.
Judge Greg Mathis is the longest-running Black male host on television, More than 13,000 cases were adjudicated on the show, which won the Emmy for outstanding legal/courtroom show in 2018.
It ie expected that reruns of both shows will continue to be offered to stations, much as JUDGE JUDY’s 25 seasons have been. Ratings have been relatively robust, and few viewers seem to notice the difference. The same is true of the confrontational talk shows that recently ceased production with their aging hosts, such as MAURY and JERRY SPRINGER. As we recently wrote, DR. PHIL will join those ranks this fall.
With the exception of Byron Allen, who continues to offer a block of low-cost, semi-scripted courtroom shows to stations, few companies seem to want to support local stations with original productions, and the shows’ modest ratings seem to support their indifference. And save for the FOX-owned stations, who will continue producing new episodes of three daytime game shows–as well as the current iteration of DIVORCE COURT, an overwhelming number of stations simply have no appetite to even try something original in daytime, As each story from the cash-desperate PR machines of Warner Discovery and Paramount attempt to put forth, both companies devoted beyond logic to growing their streaming businesses at the exclusion of almost every other area, those challenging market conditions within the daytime syndication business are the reason for the return to a rerun-driven world.
As Colonel Sherman T. Potter (whose M*A*S*H reruns were WAAAAY more successful once they left daytime) once succinctly observed, “Horsehockey”.
There’s no reason to expect audiences to even sample your content, even in time-shift. if you don’t offer something different. The landscape of daytime is no more of a desert today than it was in 1981 when Judge Wapner reinvigorated it. News and talk shows designed to promote new projects are simply not enough. There’s too much damn local news, and most station groups know it. There’s no guarantee that expanded morning shows are the solution, either. Look at all the noise surrounding GMA3. Were it not for scandal, few would know it even exists.
Maybe I’m falling back into the “old man yelling at cloud” mode that I despise being associated with. Maybe the fact that I actually do remember a precedent where taking a chance on something different matters is inconsequential to younger, less experienced people in charge who seem to be incapable of having the kind of ingenuity and guts that Masterson, Edwards, Billett and Robertson showed. Maybe there isn’t a personality as compelling as Wapner out there.
Dunno, Marilyn Milian seemed to do just fine, and she’s held up well over time.
I hsve to believe there’s someone, somewhere, maybe on YouTube, maybe on TED talks, maybe anchoring those dull local newscasts, that’s worth a real shot. Someone or something truly unique. Doing the same old thing is a de facto rerun. And we know what that practice is defined as.
I fear these kind of announcements are going to become all the more common over time. I can’t imagine Steve Wilkos stays in production much longer. And despite the endorsement from FOX’s brass, their business model is precarious. And based upon what was divulged late last week about the goings on with their news colleagues, they may have to cough up a billion or so they didn’t count on. I kinda think Tucker and Jeanine won’t be sacrificed.
So I’m not yelling at clouds, but I’m yelling at the industry at large. Reruns assure stagnation. If ratings are so splintered, then simply find a way to control your costs. Good G-d, if a podcast can be produced in a corner of a room that reaches hundreds of thousands, sticking a damn camera in there can’t be THAT expensive!!! Many daytime shows are produced as de facto Zoom calls these days. Wouldn’t THAT be at least be SOME attempt at progress?
I honestly don’t know. Judge for yourself.
Until next time…