The Economics of Reality Court TV Shows (Behind-The-Scenes)

gavelforsaleHave you ever wondered how the participants get paid in court TV shows like Judge Judy, Judge Joe Brown, or The People’s Court? Over the weekend, I got this tweet from a casting director for a new court TV show where a celebrity gets to be the judge:

I’m guessing this is due to a previous guest post on Winning Our Case in Small Claims Court. Here’s the recruitment flyer:

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Of course, me being me, I found the payment details the most interesting:

  • If you win the case, you are guaranteed to collect because the show pays the judgment directly to the winner.
  • If you lose the case, you don’t have to pay anything, again because the show pays the judgment for you.
  • No matter what, both parties will receive an appearance fee.

I found some related details from the Wikipedia page of the Judge Judy show:

  • The award limit on these types of shows is usually $5,000, the same as “real” small claims court.
  • The appearance fees varies, but is in the neighborhood of a few hundred dollars plus $35 a day if it takes multiple days. They pay may also pay for your airfare and hotel if you are not from the area.
  • Most of the audience extras are comprised of (low) paid (aspiring) actors.

For an honest disagreement, this seems to be a pretty fair arrangement. Both parties will still want to win the case, but both will stand to benefit financially. The show gets cheap material (court shows are much cheaper to make than sitcoms), and the audience gets entertained.

However, in the style of Freakonomics, this incentive structure can create unexpected consequences. Namely, fabricated lawsuits. If you think about it, dishonest conspirators can get a paid vacation to Los Angeles, an appearance fee, seen on TV, and they can split up to a $5,000 judgment. An example per Wikipedia:

In April 2013, former litigants from a 2010 airing of the show revealed they conspired together in fabricating a lawsuit in which the logical outcome would be to grant payment to the plaintiff. The operation, derived by musicians Kate Levitt and Jonathan Coward, was successful: Sheindlin awarded the plaintiff (Levitt) $1,250. The litigants involved also walked away with an appearance fee of $250 each and an all expense paid vacation to Hollywood, California. In reality, all the litigants in question—plaintiffs and defendants alike—were friends who split the earnings up among each other. It was also reported that the show’s producers were in on the sham and knew of the contrivance all along but went along with it. The lawsuit was over the fictitious death of a cat as a result of a television crushing it.

The judge does have somewhat of an “out” with the option of dismissal without prejudice, which means that there is no decision and the lawsuit may be refiled and retried in another forum.

[Judge Judy] Sheindlin has dismissed cases without prejudice when she has suspected both the plaintiff(s) and defendant(s) of conspiring together just to gain monetary rewards from the program.

If you have a case, please contact Mr. Simnowitz, and don’t forget to tell me about it if you get on TV!

Comments

  1. While it isn’t a lawsuit per say, I had a close family member get called by the Judge Judy show. Family member was going through a divorce and it must have been interesting enough for the producers who must trolll the county courthouses (or pay someone to send them tidbits of the interesting ones). Producers left message on home phone with ‘urgent request to call back the Judge Judy show’. While it’s fun TV to watch, family member passed on airing family divorce on national TV for obvious reasons. We all got a good laugh though.

    • Interesting, I did read in the Wiki that they comb through court filings for prospective litigants. Must be a weird job. I guess there are also lots of people who don’t mind airing out the family laundry on TV!

  2. It seems this type of arrangement could cause the “court” to award smaller amounts than what might be reasonable. Maybe awarding $1000 instead of $5000 because they know that the money ultimately comes out of their (the producers’) pockets. If I thought I had a good case I don’t think I would trust this scenario for justice.

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