Syndication Seeks a Court Comeback

 Allen Media Group is filling the court content breach for stations with a lineup of nine judge shows currently available in syndication.
Allen Media Group is filling the court content breach for stations with a lineup of nine judge shows currently available in syndication.
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Turns out, even court shows have gotten too expensive for daytime syndication.

The challenge with daytime — the hours between 9 a.m. and 4 p.m. — is that it has become very hard for stations to make money in those time slots. That’s why court shows are so appealing in those hours: An entire year of programming can be produced within a few weeks and the shows can be sold on a station-friendly, barter-only basis. But the dwindling daytime audience is making it difficult for stations to keep low-cost court shows on the air, which is why even lower-cost repeats are becoming prevalent.

In the past two years, three of the genre’s major shows have ended. CBS Media Ventures’s Judge Judy completed original production in 2021, while
Warner Bros. Discovery earlier this year canceled The People’s Court, which aired in syndication for 26 seasons, and Judge Mathis, which ran for 24. All three of those shows remain on TV stations in repeats. They are joined by MGM’s block of court repeats — Paternity Court With Lauren Lake, Personal Injury Court and Couples Court With the Cutlers — which run on stations under the title “Relationship Court.”

Also concluding its run is Wrigley Media’s Relative Justice, starring Judge Rhonda Willis, which aired in first-run syndication for three seasons.

True-blue Judy viewers can find her in originals on Amazon Freevee, where she stars in a Judge Judy lookalike, Judy Justice. Those repeats are also being offered to stations, although so far there haven’t been takers due to the seller seeking cash license fees in a cash-strapped market.

Shakeout in the Court

Of all the court shows that have aired in recent years, only two standalone shows remain in original production: CBS Media Ventures’s Hot Bench, which was created by Judge Judy Sheindlin, and Fox’s Divorce Court, which features Star Jones and is now headed into its 25th season. Divorce Court stays in the black by airing on other platforms.

“Older episodes of Divorce Court have dedicated channels on different platforms and it plays all over the place,” said Stephen Brown, executive VP, programming, Fox Television Stations and Fox First Run. “It’s to the point where we make more money on streaming than we do on the broadcast.”

Arguably the winner of the court fallout is Byron Allen’s Allen Media Group, which snapped up People’s Court’s Judge Marilyn Milian and Judge Greg Mathis and gave them both their own new shows. Those shows — Justice for the People With Judge Milian and Mathis Court With Judge Mathis — join Equal Justice With Judge Eboni K. Williams as AMG rolls out three more court shows this fall, bringing its total court offering to nine. AMG tends to bundle these shows into blocks, cume the ratings and sell advertising across the entire block. AMG owns its shows outright and also offers them on its own streaming and cable networks, creating ancillary revenue streams. It’s a model that others are seeking to emulate.                   

“We made a conscious choice many years ago to be the leader in the space,” Allen, founder, chairman and CEO of AMG, said. “Legal is a very important advertising category for local TV stations. There are plenty of law firms that are advertising and they like the environment of court shows. We are helping TV stations to capitalize on the category and hold on to it.”

Besides AMG, there are others out there who are willing to take swings.

Husband-and-wife judges Dana and Keith Cutler are reconvening in syndication with a new offering, Cutlers Court.
Husband-and-wife judges Dana and Keith Cutler are reconvening in syndication with a new offering, Cutlers Court.

This fall, Atlanta-based Crazy Legs Productions is rolling out Cutlers Court, starring Dana and Keith Cutler. The married couple from Kansas City are both lawyers who cut their court-show teeth on MGM’s Couples Court With the Cutlers, which ran in original production from 2017-20. MGM, which was acquired by Amazon in 2022, has since exited the court business.

Cutlers Court is cleared in more than 80% of the U.S. and it’s been picked up in 17 of the top 20 markets on stations from such groups as CBS Television Stations, Sinclair Broadcast Group, Nexstar Media Group, Gray Television, Weigel Broadcasting, Tegna and E.W. Scripps.

“The departure of other court shows left a vacuum that we’re filling,” Tom Cappello, executive producer and co-founder and CEO of Crazy Legs, said. “We know that there are available time slots for our show. That’s made it a good time to get into the syndication space.”

Like most court shows, Cutlers Court is being sold on an all-barter basis and will air as double runs in most markets. Production started in August in Atlanta, with 150 original half-hour episodes planned for the Monday-Friday daytime strip.

“We saw an opportunity in the marketplace where there was a real demand for real cases, real litigants and real drama,” Cappello said. “We decided to get into this space and this genre because I think it works really well for a smaller boutique production company like us rather than a big brand like MGM or Warner Bros. Discovery.”

Cutlers Court is Crazy Legs’s first foray into first-run syndication but it has been producing unscripted shows for such networks as Discovery, Travel, ID, TLC, HGTV, Magnolia and DIY for 15 years. Crazy Legs is working on building a content library that it can then distribute directly to consumers, much like AMG
is doing.

“We’re hoping that this is just the start of many syndicated programs, including court, lifestyle and game shows,” Cappello said.

The new show will feature the Cutlers again talking to couples about their relationship problems. Where Couples Court started and ended with cheating, though, Cutlers Court will go broader, Playing Field Entertainment executive producer and co-founder Ross Babbit said.

“It may be a cheating case, but it may be a paternity case or a question of, ‘Should I stay or should I go?’ ” Babbit said. “We’re bringing a wider variety of love stories.”

A sibling to court is true crime, which seems like a category that would play well among daytime’s core audience of women 25-54 (or older). So far, though, it’s been hard to get true-crime shows to stick in syndication.

Making True Crime Pay

The exception to that is NBC News-produced series Dateline, which launched a repackaged syndicated version in 2017 after testing the concept on about 20 stations in August 2016. Now headed into its seventh season as a strip, weekend hour and primetime show on Fox-owned MyNetworkTV, Dateline has proven itself to be a reliable syndication player. The show is cleared in 100% of the country and in all 210 markets, Sean O’Boyle, executive VP and general sales manager, NBCUniversal Syndication Studios, said.

“The marketplace needs content and it’s not expensive for studios to offer programming like this,” O’Boyle said. “The notion of spending millions for the next Ellen or Kelly Clarkson is past. This is a good example of right-sizing.”

Moreover, true crime is taking up some of the space that soap operas used to fill because a well-told true-crime story has a beginning, middle and an end. It’s that drive toward resolution that keeps viewers hooked, O’Boyle said.

To that end, CBS this fall is launching a similar product, 48 Hours, repackaged and updated for syndication with Jericka Duncan and Jonathan Vigliotti serving as anchors. CBS News has nearly 600 episodes to offer to TV stations as 48 Hours has been in production since 1988. The show still airs on Saturday nights on CBS.

“We wanted to do two things: distinguish the library shows that are going to syndication and distinguish from brand-new fresh content that then makes its way downstream,” executive producer Judy Tygard said. “We added Jericka and Jon because they can give the shows the additional content that’s needed.”

Duncan and Vigliotti are providing new information in each case, giving them more content, including opens, mid-joins and transitions.

CBS News correspondent Erin Moriarty reports for the syndication-bound true crime newsmagazine 48 Hours and hosts a spinoff podcast,  My Life of Crime.
CBS News correspondent Erin Moriarty reports for the syndication-bound true crime newsmagazine 48 Hours and hosts a spinoff podcast, My Life of Crime.

The show is cleared on an all-barter basis in more than 97% of the country in 190 markets with the 15 CBS-owned stations serving as the launch group. It’s sold to stations in the Nexstar Media Group, Sinclair, Fox Television Stations, Gray Television, Cox Media Group, Tegna and E.W. Scripps station groups.

48 Hours has been undergoing a brand expansion over the last several years. The show airs on CBS on Saturday nights but also has broadcast, cable and streaming windows on the CBS News Streaming Network, CBSNews.com, Paramount Plus, YouTube, Fave TV, Pop TV and domestically and internationally on Paramount-owned FAST platform Pluto TV. It’s also licensed to networks in dozens of countries across the globe. The show also produces a podcast, and correspondent Erin Moriarty has her own podcast, titled My Life of Crime.

The ability to wring that much distribution, and thus revenue, from a piece of content is going to become increasingly vital to producers’ bottom lines as audiences continue to fragment across platforms.

Trifecta also is taking a third true crime-focused program — iCrime With Elizabeth Vargas, a show in which people submit videos they shot on their phones — into season two.

Looking ahead, both station groups and syndicators said they are in development on new court shows with fresh talent and their eyes are firmly fixed on 2024.

“It might be time to come out with something new,” Fox Television Stations executive VP, programming Frank Cicha said. “If you look at it, court does well on FAST channels and diginets. We have platforms for a new court show if you don’t care about exclusivity.”