There’s A New Sheriff Of First-Run TV. And Not A Moment Too Soon.

Yes, I’m enough of a Luddite to still believe there is a legitimate business in first-run TV syndication.  I admit I’m biased, having personally benefitted from it for decades, both as a strategist abetting sellers and as a discerning buyer who often frustrated those trying to make deals with me.  I’m sure I didn’t make as many as others did, nor did I reap many of the side benefits that permeated that world during its heyday.  I’m not a golfer, I rarely got invited to junkets, and I wasn’t enough of a fan of debauchery to be out with “clients” at strip clubs–at least, in those days.

But I also have strong feelings and passions for the fact that, in its heyday, literally thousands of fine people were employed by the production of those non-network series.  Executives in charge of production, casting people, camerapeople, editors, makeup artists, go-fers, and, yes, even actors.  Paid audience members on many occasions, too.    Syndicated shows had to fill several hours a week, for a minimum of 26 weeks a year.  There was an awful lot of money being spent.  But an even larger amount of money has been made.  And, based on even current ratings, there’s still quite a bit of it still being made, and, collectively, more different people watching it than who watch streaming television and, if for no other reason than the number of hours a day non-network TV occupies, prime time television as well.

In recent years, audiences have declined precipitously, and companies that are under internal pressure to find savings have determined that the cost of making new shows versus the revenue that can be gleaned in a given year isn’t worth it.  Nowhere has this pivot been seen more than at Warner Brothers, which once literally dominated first-run production and sales.  And the show that basically started it for that team, when it was a small little company called Telepictures, was THE PEOPLE’S COURT.  It reignited a genre that once was a staple of network daytime back in black-and-white days, but had never crossed into the world of small claims cases.  Real people, real results, real stakes.  It was the perfect confluence of soap opera and game show.  And it happened to fit perfectly as a compliment to both, dominating early fringe time slots between the end of network daytime and news.  It eventually spawned companion pieces such as SUPERIOR COURT and JUDGE GREG MATHIS.  And they did indeed bring audience directly into adjacent newscasts, which is the lifeblood of most local television revenue then and now.

So when Warner Brothers announced over the winter that both Mathis’ show and the current iteration of PEOPLE’S COURT were ceasing original production, following the lead of JUDGE JUDY two years ago, it was a disturbingly somber reminder of how little the current regime values the business.  And, honestly, looking strictly at the numbers, they can’t be completely be faulted for their conclusion.  In the two years since JUDGE JUDY ceased original production, while national ratings have declined, they have not declined any more precipitously than have those of shows that have continued to produce new episodes and, if only by default, have held on to a goodly number of time slots on key stations.  When the cost of making shows is removed, it’s a more profitable business for CBS Media Ventures. And they’ve tripled down on that philosophy, with both DR. PHIL and RACHAEL RAY also ending production this spring.

With Yosemite Zas and his billion-dollar debt albatross hanging over his head from a still-disbelieving Wall Street, Warner Brothers’ announcement that JUDGE MATHIS and THE PEOPLE’S COURT would only be available to stations as reruns was seen as a concession.  And, frankly, as an overwhelming majority of stations have showed a profound indifference to anything first-run besides news, they were all but embracing the idea of turning their daytime and fringe hours into the same kind of vast wasteland of reruns that are available via cable networks and streaming services, who have stolen the majority of those missing syndication viewers, along with, of course, advancing age and proliferating options besides just TV for those young and nimble enough to embrace it.

Which is why the news yesterday from Byron Allen’s Allen Media Group was so heartwarming, per veteran syndication scribe Paige Albaniak of BROADCASTING AND CABLE:

Judge Marilyn Milian will star in Allen Media Group’s new one-hour daily court strip Justice for the People with Judge Milian. AMG expects to launch the show in national broadcast syndication this fall. Milian formerly starred in Warner Bros.’ long-running People’s Court, which Warner Bros. canceled earlier this year.

Besides starring in her new program, Milian will also offer her legal expertise to local station news departments when relevant.

Milian presided over The People’s Court for 22 seasons, during which time show show was nominated for the Daytime Emmy for outstanding legal/courtroom program 15 times with four wins. 

Milian joins Judge Greg Mathis, formerly of Warner Bros.’ Judge Mathis, who also moved to Allen Media Group to star in a new court show, Mathis Court with Judge Mathis, after Warner Bros. ended his program as well. Mathis also will make himself available to local stations to offer legal commentary as part of a promotional effort for his new program.

Byron Allen has built a billion dollar empire via syndication, primarily through courtroom shows.  He learned the art of selling from one of his mentors, Al Masini, who ran a successful spot television sales business and took credit for the creation of ENTERTAINMENT TONIGHT.  He learned the efficiencies of producing content at a much lower cost than major studios through the likes of those who ran Masini’s production and distrubution arm, Television Program Enterprises.  And he has taken the mantle of responsibilty to champion talent and content that appeals to persons of color both because of his personal commitment as well as the business realities.  Black and Hispanic audiences watch a disproportionate amount of television, particularly in daytime.  In major cities, they make up an increasingly large percentage of those who continue to watch linear television.  And courtroom shows have overindexed other genres with such appeal for decades.  Don’t think Warner Brothers didn’t know that.

So to see Allen react as swiftly and as decisively as he did to effectively take the decades of loyalty and familarity built by Milian and Mathis and not only give them new courtrooms to preside over at a time when the balance of the industry is in truncation mode is both atypical and encouraging.  And as Albaniak continued, Allen has now indeed built enough of a roster to populate entire schedules of duopoly stations:

Milian and Mathis join a large court line-up that includes one more new show to be launched this fall: Equal Justice with Judge Eboni K. Williams. Allen Media Group offers six other court shows, including America’s Court with Judge Kevin Ross, the group’s longest-running court series, which debuted in fall 2010. Other series are Justice for All with Judge Cristina Perez, Justice with Judge Mablean, Supreme Justice with Judge Karen, The Verdict with Judge Hatchett and We the People with Judge Lauren Lake. All of those judges, with the exceptions of Ross and Williams, are veterans of court shows produced by other syndicators. 

And by adding not only more recently established talents who occupied more premium time slots on better stations and making their expertise available to local news at a time when such local experts are deemed expendable by many stations, Allen is creating a win-win scenario where he can expand his station roster and glean more cumulative audience to sell national spots against.  When individual ratings are aggregated, Allen’s array is as competitive as any individual show’s, save for the likes of prime-access game shows.

Many in the production world have often bitched about Allen’s cookie-cutter producing methods.  A common soundstage, with a dedicated set redressed often enough to churn out the volume of shows.  Actors employed as defendants, often with merely a list of talking points rather than a full script.  (But hey, that works for CURB YOUR ENTHUSIASM. )  Fewer on-set perks like expensive catering.  Less than state-of-the-art production equipment.  Even lower-grade office coffee.

Whine, whine, whine.

At least Allen still believes first-run TV is more than spots and dots.  At least he’s still creating new jobs where some of the less entitled souls who are victims of the above cancellations might actually wind up working.  Production assistants will draw a paycheck.  Makeup artists will have faces to touch up.  Gofers will still be able to fetch that lower-grade coffee and get paid something for it.

And, best of all, something besides endless newscast blocks of content produced in 2023 on daytime television.

Saving hundreds of people from unemployment is perhaps second in line to growing his empire, to be sure.  But I know Byron well enough to know it’s part of the equation.  And I also believe he’s more than a bit satisfied that his moves have reduced the efforts of his studio competitors to second-tier levels, relegating those reruns to even less consequential stations and time slots.  Perhaps even taking them out of the comoetitive landscape entirely.

It’s nice to see someone quicker on the draw than Yosemite Zas.  Using effectively the same playbook that made his company what they were.  I’m pretty confident plenty of those that helped built it up before Zas arrived to tear it down are rooting for the new Milian and Mathis entries.

As am I.

Until next time…




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