Judge Judy has moved from the bench to the negotiating table.
In addition to churning out new daily episodes of her top-rated court show for CBS TV Distribution, creator/host Judith Sheindlin now is looking to cash in on her reruns. As part of her most recent contract renegotiation, she locked in a cool $47 million-plus a year along with rights to her library, which includes thousands of old episodes. And if all goes as Sheindlin hopes, she’ll soon sell that catalog for as much as $200 million — and in doing so throw cold water on a long-held theory that there’s little to no aftermarket for such syndicated shows.
Shopping the library on Sheindlin’s behalf is former Bear Stearns banker Lisbeth R. Barron, who in recent months has approached a mix of studios, station groups, distributors and deep-pocketed individuals. Her pitch, per multiple sources who have heard it: TV stations — those that currently air Judge Judy originals as well as their competitors — will be salivating for anything Judy once the first-run episodes conclude in 2020; plus, the No. 1 court show has yet to be exploited in much of the streaming, cable or global marketplace.
That Sheindlin, 74, who along with CBS declined comment for this story, was able to secure those rights in early 2015 is evidence of her leverage at the company. While a series of pricey talk shows have come and gone (remember Meredith? Katie? Queen Latifah?), Judy still averages more than 10 million daily viewers in its 21st season; and in 2014, Sheindlin launched another top performer in Hot Bench. For CBS, procuring new episodes of Judy through the 2019-20 season was not simply a priority but a necessity.
For an on-air personality to own his or her library is rare but not unprecedented. Johnny Carson famously had the rights to his Tonight Show episodes, which his estate sold to Antenna TV in 2016. Oprah Winfrey also held on to her eponymous talk show catalog to spackle OWN’s schedule; but despite its hugely popular initial run, the topical series no longer airs regularly on Winfrey’s network. Judy should hold up better, predicts Katz TV Group’s Bill Carroll, both because of the evergreen nature of the show and the agelessness of its host. “If you saw an episode that was shot five years ago and one that was shot a month ago, it’s unlikely you’d be able to tell the difference,” he says.
According to multiple sources, CBS executives willingly coughed up Judy rights in part because they were eager to appease their star. The other reason, says an insider: “The company didn’t necessarily think [the library] was that valuable. There had been some tire-kicking over the years with either cable or SVOD people to see if anyone wanted her shows, and I don’t think the response was overwhelmingly big.” Whether that’s changed and, if so, how much are key questions being debated.
There are those who believe Sheindlin could be the beneficiary of a marketplace that’s evolved considerably, even in the two years since she landed the rights. “If you have a strong brand and you have content, there’s an appetite in cable and streaming that just didn’t exist before,” says Carroll, hypothesizing Judy repeats could be a nice complement to one of the handful of newer crime-centric cable channels. Thinking bigger picture, others suggest a cash-rich tech company looking to launch an SVOD channel or a major foreign buyer eager to have English-language programming could be options, too.
But at least a few of the more traditional Hollywood players are said to have balked at the nine-figure tag, calling it “too risky” at that price point. “Is it sellable? Yes. Is it sellable for hundreds of millions of dollars? I don’t think so,” says one, who argues that the value of Judy reruns will decline dramatically once the audience finds itself tuning in and saying, “Oh, I saw that one already.” Then, in the same breath, this person adds, “But I always go back to Ted Turner. Everybody said he’d lost his mind when he paid $1.5 billion or whatever he paid for the MGM library, and then he created two networks out of it and all of a sudden he was a genius.”
This story first appeared in the Feb. 24 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.