The last case she taped for “Judge Judy” didn’t deviate in style from the roughly 12,750 cases before it. Wearing a black robe, lace collar and expression of intense focus, Judy Sheindlin heard a typical dispute—contractor suing for payment, client claiming shoddy work—which she dispatched with signature jabs like “That’s baloney” and “Don’t waste my time.”
The judge gave no farewell remarks from the bench. When the episode airs June 8—others taped earlier will air later—only one detail will make it stand out among reruns for years to come: a glittery, bee-shaped clip Ms. Sheindlin wore in her hair. It was a wink to fans, and a nod to her Queen Bee production company at the end of a 25-year reign over daytime television.
Ms. Sheindlin has been an unwavering force in an industry where names like Oprah made more splash. “Judge Judy,” the No. 1 first-run show in syndicated TV for 11 consecutive seasons, looks on track to end with a 12th, with an average 7.8 million viewers.
The broadcast landscape, dictated by the rhythms of talk shows, doctor shows and court shows leading up to the local news, is in flux as audiences break with old routines and studios sell more programs to streaming platforms. At age 78, Ms. Sheindlin is headed for streaming, too, instead of retirement. Next on her docket: a new court show that will premiere on
free, ad-supported streaming service, IMDb TV, later this year.
“You’ve got to be in it to win it,” Ms. Sheindlin says of her decision to jump platforms, which follows some friction at the end of her long-term relationship with the television studio that produces “Judge Judy.” Her broadcast career, which made her one of TV’s highest-paid stars and arguably the most famous jurist outside the Supreme Court, followed 14 years on the bench in New York and 10 years as a lawyer. “I don’t play golf. I don’t play tennis. I don’t play mahjong. Why would I want to look for something I want to do when I already know what I like to do?”
She continues to live by a code of right and wrong that she believes is as black and white as her judge’s garb. On “Judge Judy” she applied it for entertainment and for people seeking small-claims justice, be it a roommate stiffed on rent or a guy who got punched out at a bachelor party.
But it wasn’t just the outcomes of such cases that made “Judge Judy” a pop-culture institution; it was how Ms. Sheindlin dealt with the offending parties. In an era when what constitutes truth is hotly debated, her decisiveness (meted out with acid wit) helped her sustain a big, broad audience, she thinks.
“It’s not show business if there ain’t no show, but the message is consistent, and I mean it,” she says.
“Judge Judy,” which hit the air in 1996, resulted from high-profile media coverage of Ms. Sheindlin in family court, including a “60 Minutes” profile that showed her skewering defendants, lawyers and case workers. It ended with Morley Safer asking her if systems and people would be better in 10 years. “Worse!” she replied.
Almost three decades after that piece aired, as she prepares to arbitrate more questionable behavior for TV, she has the same verdict: “Sometimes I feel like Don Quixote.”
Covid cut short production of “Judge Judy” in Los Angeles a few episodes into the final season. Later, producers built a partial set on the East Coast, where she interacted through a live Wi-Fi link with litigants on the L.A. set.
For most of the pandemic, however, Ms. Sheindlin hunkered down in Naples with her husband, fellow judge Jerry Sheindlin, and the latest in their line of Shih Tzus.
On a recent afternoon there, an interview began in her high-rise condominium overlooking the Gulf of Mexico. Later, she piloted her Bentley (a yacht-ish Mulsanne model in her favorite hue, magnolia) to a nearby club, where the interview continued over lunch and one round of Bloody Marys.
The woman known for dressing people down on TV says America’s combative atmosphere in the past year wore her out. She often switched off cable news to stream comforting movies with dialogue she could recite from memory, like “Terms of Endearment” and “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.”
The 2020 election still stings for Ms. Sheindlin, who made the first political endorsement since becoming a TV star when she stumped for Michael Bloomberg. “This country needed a clinician,” she says.
She won’t say if she preferred Biden or Trump as an alternative. But she frowns on some ripple effects from that political and cultural divide: “I wouldn’t follow [Trump’s] tweets even if I knew how to do that,” she says, but she views his continuing ban from
as undermining free speech. “If you can shut off the voice of that ‘kokhlefl’ ”—Yiddish for “pot stirrer”—“you can shut off mine if you think it’s inconsistent with what you think I should be thinking.”
Ms. Sheindlin’s universal no-nonsense rule has served her well in the TV business. She’s never employed a manager or talent agent. She credits a lawyer, John Breglio, for a crucial edit to the language in her TV deal when “Judge Judy” first hit. He removed the common “last look” clause that would have given the studio the right to match any outside offers. That enabled Ms. Sheindlin to negotiate contract extensions from “the catbird seat,” she says.
For much of her run Ms. Sheindlin’s contract renegotiations were a one-sided tradition. She’d sit down at a restaurant with the head of the TV studio that produces and distributes “Judge Judy,” CBS Media Ventures, and hand him an envelope in which her desired salary was written. (Her annual pay for “Judge Judy” has been widely reported at $47 million, a figure Ms. Sheindlin declines to comment on: “I’m a Midwesterner when I talk about money,” the native New Yorker says.)
Her dealings with CBS grew more complicated at the end. In 2015, she negotiated a deal that would give her ownership of the library of past “Judge Judy” episodes starting in 2017. Meanwhile, she tested the value for those reruns by shopping them to other companies. To retain the library, CBS stepped in to buy out Ms. Sheindlin’s option on it for $99 million. As part of the deal, she agreed to a 25th year of “Judge Judy.” With the supply of new episodes coming to an end, the studio sold TV stations multiple years’ worth of reruns. Ms. Sheindlin referred to this move in a deadpan statement issued last year about the end of her show: “They have decided to monetize their ‘Judge Judy’ library of reruns. I wish them good luck with their experiment.”
Her exit was also tinged by something she perceived as a slight. Last fall, when CBS introduced a syndicated talk show hosted by Drew Barrymore, some CBS stations in major markets made room for it by moving the court show “Hot Bench” to their secondary channels. Ms. Sheindlin is the creator of “Hot Bench,” which features a panel of three judges and launched in 2014. This season so far, “Hot Bench” has averaged 2.3 million viewers, compared with 719,000 for “The Drew Barrymore Show.”
“You disrespected my creation,” Ms. Sheindlin says of the handling of “Hot Bench” by CBS. “And you were wrong. Not only in disrespecting my creation, but your gamble in what you put in its place.”
“We had a nice marriage,” she adds with a laugh. “It’s going to be a Bill and Melinda Gates divorce.”
“We have had an incredibly successful relationship with Judy over the last 25 years,” CBS Media Ventures president Steve LoCascio said in a statement. “It has been an honor representing her show, and just like there has never been another Oprah, there will never be another Judge Judy.”
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Amazon ordered one season of her new IMDb TV show, which doesn’t have an official title yet. (Its star likes “Judy Justice.”) She’ll tape 120 episodes over roughly five months, compared with the 260 episodes per season of “Judge Judy” she made over the course of a year.
The streaming show will include some notable changes to her formula. A higher dollar limit on her judgments will allow producers to scout for cases beyond the small-claims fodder that “Judge Judy” relied on. Surrogate courts, which typically deal with fallout from people’s wills and estates, could be a source of more complex family disputes, she says.
Going to a streaming world where people consume content on-demand means leaving the weekday routines of millions of people. It also takes Ms. Sheindlin out of the traditional ratings race she long dominated.
“I assume that I’ll know if ‘Judy Justice’ bombs,” she says, noting that we’ll know, too, if Amazon passes on future seasons. “At this point, I don’t need that validation of my footprint.”
Write to John Jurgensen at [email protected]
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