Silence and tension fill the courtroom making the air heavy. A door opens allowing twelve citizens to file into the courtroom. Onlookers study their faces for a hint of the impending verdict. As they make their way to the jury box they glance at the man whose fate is in their hands. His eyes plead with them for reason and mercy. After the verdict is read, it is clear that his pleadings were to no avail. The courtroom erupts in joyful clapping and shocked gasps. Hugs and handshakes are exchanged and the jury dismissed. The convicted felon is taken away to pay his debt to society. Justice has been neatly packaged and delivered in true Hollywood style. One only needs to look at a ratings chart to see that Americans have a voracious appetite for this kind of television. From works of pure fiction like NBC's Law and Order franchise to Court TV's total devotion to real life trials, statistics show that Americans simply can not get enough. The deeper and more complex question is why. What makes court-based television so appealing? The general consensus for its appeal is that court TV demystifies the judicial system, confirms society's ideals and values and placates our need for voyeuristic theater.
Reuven Frank, columnist for The New Leader, argues in his article "Courting the Viewers", that court-based shows like Judge Judy and The People's Court are artificial and are "the ultimate reductio ad absurdum of TV trials"(Frank). He goes on to state that had it not been for such high profile celebrity cases like the Menendez brothers trial and the O.J Simpson trials, Court TV would have stayed a novelty station instead of a national pastime (Frank). However, most would argue that America's obsession with the Scott Peterson murder trial would prove that the ratings are not all about a famous name.
In fact, according to Advertising Age columnist Claire Atkinson in her article "Court TV Banking on Michael Jackson Trial; Fits Schleiff's Strategy to Snag Young Viewers" Court TV ratings shot up 300% from the same time the previous year because of the Peterson coverage (Atkinson). The predominant viewpoint for this phenomenon is that we, as a society, are voyeurs. Those with this perspective argue that we like to watch. They insist that we love to see what other people are doing in their back yards without any actual interaction. Atkinson goes on to state that the revelation of salacious details in a courtroom usually translate into huge ratings. She also relates that, because of this, Court TV expects the Michael Jackson molestation case to be the highest rated celebrity trial in history (Atkinson). Critics suggest that it allows those who have broken the law to bask in the spotlight under the assumption that any publicity is good publicity.
In "Law as Soap Opera and Game Show: The Case of The People's Court", Helle Porsdam, Associate Professor at Odense University in Denmark also insists that voyeurism is one of the most import reasons for the success of this type of show. She states that people enjoy witnessing other people's issues and seeing if the litigant's problems compare to their own (Porsdam). According to Elayne Rapping in her article "Cable's Silver Lining", shows like this also allow us to view how the poor and powerless are treated in our society (Rapping). Some would suggest this provides us with a societal bottom rung to gauge our own lives by.
Porsdam also argues that one of the major reasons Americans watch such programming is it discusses and reinforces societal values and norms in our modern and litigious society. She goes on to say most viewers take away from these show a sense that the cornerstones of our value system, love, respect and fair treatment, are proper human values (Porsdam). Most agree that show's like Judge Judy and The People's Court, with their ability to dole out black or white justice in less than a half an hour, is comforting in a world filled with many shades of gray. Judge Judy's star arbitrator Judge Judy Sheindlin agrees wholeheartedly. She is quoted by columnist Joe Schlosser in his article "Judge Judy Gets Favorable Rating" as saying, "I'll think they want to see something that looks right, smells right, feels right, because they are used to seeing a lot of cases that don't end up that way"(qtd in Schlosser). Alan Dershowitz, Harvard Law School Professor, say's of The People's Court Judge Wapner "Unlike too many "real" judges, Wapner has no agenda other than to do justice"(qtd in Potsdam). Most agree that America wants to see the system works right and this type of program delivers that.
Frank also states that court based TV started as a fad (Frank). However, champions of this genre point out that highly successful judicial shows have been around since the fifties. In his article "Legal Eagles Fly High Through TV Airways", columnist Dirk Smillie relates that legal shows like "Famous Jury Trials" and "The Verdict is Yours" in the fifties and "Perry Mason" in the sixties indicate that legal shows have been catching viewers attention since the invention of TV (Smillie). Though fewer in number than current day line-ups, most say they fulfilled the same voyeuristic needs.
They also suggest that the rise in the number of these types of shows reflect the detachment of many Americans from their communities. Former Chief Justice Warren Burger touched on this when he said, "the courts have been expected to fill the void created by the decline of church, family and neighborhood unit"(qtd in Porsdam). Some say that as Americans pull back from these usual social outlets they look for others that they can use in the comfort and safety of their homes. Most agree that many have chosen court programs as this outlet.
Many insist that another dominant argument for the success of court television is the dramatic and theatrical aspect of the shows. Porsdam argues that while it may not be like classical Greek drama it is most definitely theatrical (Porsdam). Frank agrees on the idea that a trial is theater. He argues that it looks like theater. He relates that is contains conflict, it is eventually resolved and concludes (Frank). The majority agrees that it contains all the elements of theater whether it is portrayed by actors or by real people. The people involved become just as famous as any movie actor does. According to Frank, polls suggest that Judge Wapner, from The People's Court, had such a following that he became more recognizable than Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist (Frank). Some might conclude that this has more to do with the Supreme Court's aloofness than by Wapner's notoriety.
This brings up the final reason people give for the popularity for court television. Most insist that these shows demystify the court system for the average American. Porsdam relates that judges and lawyers have noticed an increased knowledge of laws and procedures since these shows started airing. She goes on to say that these court officials say that litigants are better prepared. She also relates that critics have concluded that this awareness ha s resulted in an influx of frivolous lawsuits that have clogged the already burdened court system. She goes on to say that critics believe that these shows have given a false impression of the reality of small-claims courts (Porsdam). The majority would agree that this is an unfortunate side effect of the judicial system losing its mystique. They would also argue that it is the lesser of two evils.
Most agree the explanation for America's addiction to court based television is a complex one. Americans enjoy the drama of crime shows like Law and Order. They like the hard but fair treatment of Judge Judy. They talk around the water cooler about the latest celebrity trial and compare it to their ordinary lives. They become armchair lawyers and quote Judge Wapner to make their point. Whether it is our voyeuristic tendencies, our need for social outlets or our curiosity over a complex judicial system, America is watching.