LOS ANGELES - Judge Judith Sheindlin, the straight-talking star of “Judge Judy,” peered down at a sassy defendant with disgust.
“Listen to me, Miss Fibby,” Sheindlin snapped at a recent taping here. “They don’t keep me here because I’m gorgeous. They keep me here because I’m smart.”
It was a classic “Judge Judy” retort: sour yet funny, superior yet self-deprecating. But it was also not exactly true. (Cue judicial scowl.) At a time when the broadcast television audience is fragmenting, CBS keeps her on that bench because, at 71 years old and finishing her 18th season in daytime syndication, she is a viewer-grabbing machine.
“Judge Judy” has ratings that are climbing, a rarity for DVR-embattled television programming during daytime, prime time or any other time. For the first two weeks of May, “Judge Judy” had a 7 percent increase in viewers compared with the same period last year, according to Nielsen. Among women 25 to 54, the bull’s-eye demographic for daytime television, ratings rose 5 percent.
By comparison, the 16-season-old “Judge Mathis,” a similar reality court show, suffered a 4 percent decline among total viewers and target-audience drop of 15 percent.
“We’re an ancient show that just keeps getting stronger,” a smiling Sheindlin said in her dressing room. “Half of prime time would be thrilled to get our numbers.”
That is true, which is part of the reason CBS, which owns “Judge Judy,” gave the show an evening special Tuesday. “Judge Judy Primetime,” which competed against “American Idol,” was CBS’ highest-rated offering that evening.
CBS is also capitalizing further on Sheindlin in daytime. Her flagship 30-minute program has been renewed for three more seasons. Coming in the fall is “Hot Bench,” a new syndicated show she created; its cases will be argued before a three-person panel, a twist for the court genre.
“She is an absolute force of nature,” said Armando Nuñez, chief executive of CBS Global Distribution Group.
Well, yes. But beyond her singular talent for showmanship - a tut-tut here, a barked order there - why is “Judge Judy” bucking television’s downward trend?
Social media is one answer. About a year ago, after resisting, Sheindlin agreed to dive into sites like Twitter and Facebook, hiring her grandson, Casey Barber, 25, to lead the effort. She also began regularly posting videos on a site called What Would Judy Say?, where she dispenses pearls of wisdom and poses questions to her fans. (A recent one: “Should parents be fined for children’s bullying?”)
Perhaps because she is revealing more of her off-bench personality, which is more playful and warm, Sheindlin has become a less polarizing figure, according to the Q Scores Co., which measures the likability of public figures.
“She has always had high levels of believability and trustworthiness, but people have started to have a much more balanced perception of her and like her more, especially when she uses a bit more humor,” said Henry Schafer, the research firm’s executive vice president.
Schafer said his company’s March survey showed that Sheindlin had a score of 19, on par with Oprah Winfrey. To compare, Katie Couric had a 12.
“Increasingly, daytime viewers are pushing back against celebrity, seeking authenticity and demanding high relatability,” said Dan Wilch, a senior television analyst at Frank N. Magid Associates. “Judy just nails every single one.”
Sheindlin, who tapes only 52 days a year, for which CBS pays her an estimated $47 million, has her own theories about her program’s continued popularity.
“People take comfort in order,” she said. “I also move swiftly, as opposed to a justice system and a government that is slow and meandering.” In other words, “Judge Judy,” which features real small-claims cases, offers people a fantasy - a legal system as they would like it to be.
“There are so many injustices in this world, and her show gives me 30 minutes of escape every day where I know the right decision will be made,” said Pat Wager, a longtime fan from Naples, Florida, who attended a recent taping of “Judge Judy.”
“She’s the voice of reason in America,” Wager added, noting that most episodes contain a positive message about the importance of personal responsibility.
Not everyone agrees - for some viewers, Sheindlin borders on being a bully; for others, her program is an egregious example of dumbed-down television. But that is part of the draw: It’s fun to watch the itchy and the scratchy, the overweight and the underemployed plod into her courtroom and get fricasseed. “Who cares about your sob story?” Sheindlin asked a whimpering defendant the other day.
“Judge Judy” is very much a Hollywood product, but the unedited proceedings are surprisingly courtlike. On a recent morning at Sunset Gower Studios here, Sheindlin was on Stage 5, sorting through a spat over a dog breeding gone wrong. There was no starting and stopping, as is typically the case on other sets; no director yelled “cut” and gave a suggestion about ratcheting up the drama.
“Don’t mess with what works,” she said. “The only note I want is a thank you at the end of the season.”
Sheindlin, formerly a prosecutor and a judge in New York City, was relaxed and wickedly funny off camera. “Hello, kiddo!” is how she warmly greeted a reporter. After shooing a publicist out of her dressing room, she put away a deck of playing cards and began sharing her unfiltered thoughts - sadly not for the record - on topics like presidential politics or Sheryl Sandberg’s book “Lean In.”
Sheindlin has a new book of her own on the way, one she hopes to distribute in an unusual manner, perhaps teaming with Wal-Mart to give it away free and raise money for charity. She is the author of the best-sellers “Don’t Pee on My Leg and Tell Me It’s Raining” and “Beauty Fades, Dumb is Forever.”
The “Judge Judy” star could easily have a larger business empire, but she has turned down endorsement and licensing offers.
“I’m a judge,” she said. “I’m not a judge who sells dog food or a judge who sells toothpaste.” She is also picky about what she judges; she has turned down offers, for instance, to serve as a guest justice on “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” a reality series dedicated to female impersonation. (Sheindlin’s image, at least, made an appearance when a drag queen contestant competed as her.)
How much more “Judge Judy” does she have in her? Beyond the three seasons on order, Sheindlin said it would depend on how much fun she was still having, along with “how well my face is holding up.” The program is distributed in 125 overseas markets, some of which are only now showing Season 5, ensuring a life for the program long after she hangs up her lace-collared robe.
But enough about the future: Sheindlin pronounced herself “ready for a vodka” and headed to a USC Shoah Foundation dinner, where President Barack Obama was scheduled to accept a humanitarian award.
A few hours later, Sheindlin found herself shaking hands with the president. Asked by a nearby guest if he had ever watched her show, Obama responded, “Who doesn’t love ‘Judge Judy’?”