|Genre||Nontraditional court show|
Colin Male (1957–1969)
William B. Keene
Jim Peck (1985–1989)
Martha Smith (1989–1992)
Mablean Ephriam (1999–2006)
Lynn Toler (2006–present)
|No. of seasons||(present life) 15
(overall show) 34
|Running time||22 minutes|
|Original channel||First-run syndication
|Picture format||480i SDTV (1957–1969, 1985–1992, 1999-2011)
480i widescreen (2011–present)
1999 – present
|[Official website Website]|
Divorce Court began as a dramatized court show, but later and presently an arbitration-based reality court show. The program is nontraditional within the judicial genre as it only resolves the disputes of divorcing couples. It has been presided over by many television personalities, currently former Cleveland Heights Municipal Court Judge Lynn Toler. Divorce Court is now produced by Monet Lane Prods. and distributed by 20th Television (both are the production and syndication arms of 20th Century Fox).
Divorce Court is the longest-running program in the legal courtroom genre, and of the shows now airing in the genre, is the oldest. It has been revived more than any other court show: the series has lived three lives in first-run syndication: from 1957 to 1969, from 1985 to 1992, and since 1999—present. It has had four different "judges," most of which presided in different lives of the show, though 2 of which that presided separately within the same life of the show. Unlike the show's previous lives which portrayed standard court cases with opening and closing arguments and attorneys representing the litigants, litigants defend themselves in the present life of the show, which is similar to most current court shows.
The show's earliest life was dramatized and scripted. It had a total of 12 seasons, lasting from 1957 to 1969. During that life, Voltaire Perkins played the role of the judge, with Colin Male playing the role of courtroom announcer. The show's 2nd life, lasting 7 seasons, debuted over a decade later in the spring of 1985. This life began with the show's 13th season. It was scripted and William B. Keene played the role of the judge (Judge Keene was the presiding judge at the murder trial of Charles Manson from December 1969 to April 1970, when he was replaced due to a motion of prejudice filed by Manson). Former game show host Jim Peck played the role of courtroom reporter and announcer, but was later replaced by former Scarecrow and Mrs. King star Martha Smith near the ending of this life of the show. This life of Divorce Court lasted until 1992, bringing the show to an overall 19 seasons. After that, the show was once again cancelled, with reruns airing on the USA Network during the early 1990s.
The 20th season which began the show's 3rd/present life debuted in September 1999. By its 1999 resurrection, court shows across the board had made a transition to a format involving former judges legitimately arbitrating over actual small claims cases (a trend first introduced by The People's Court and heavily popularized by the ratings success of Judge Judy). Following along with its counterparts, Divorce Court took up this trend in its 3rd/present life. Its 3rd/present life was first arbitrated over by former Los Angeles Prosecuting Attorney Mablean Ephriam for 7 years, from the 1999-00 season through the 2005-06 season. Toler then succeeded her, taking over the program by the 2006-07 season to the present. By the 2013-14 season, Toler reached her 8th season presiding over the series, outnumbering Ephriam's reign.
On September 2nd, 2013, Divorce Court entered its 34th season (15th season in its current format).
1957-69 and 1985-92 lives
While touted as presenting real cases to television audiences, the stories from earlier versions of Divorce Court were actually reenactments of divorce cases presented by actors.
Actors portrayed the litigants - the plaintiff, who initiated the divorce proceedings; the defendant, who either sought a reconciliation or sought a divorce decree of his/her own; and a number of witnesses, who testified on behalf of one of the litigants. Meanwhile student attorneys would argue the cases.
Each episode followed a basic formula, as follows:
- Each attorney giving opening statements.
- The litigants, along with one or two supporting witnesses, giving their side of the story and enduring cross-examination.
- Closing arguments.
- The judge's decision, followed by appropriate reactions by each side.
Many of the stories had standard marital issues: mental and/or physical abuse, adultery, desertion and other irreconcilable differences. As with most courtroom-based television programs through the ages (and to keep audiences interested), the stories were hardly the sort of the unloved wife's affair with the milkman or the husband's meddlesome mother interfering with and ultimately ruining the marriage. Rather, Divorce Court tended to present more sensational cases with "shock value." Some examples include:
- A father who deliberately involved his children in "accidents" so he could collect on the insurance. He would pay them off by offering them presents and other rewards.
- A woman who gave her son up for adoption then later tracked him down and married him (without his knowledge of their true relationship).
- The woman who hosted male-stripper parties overnight while her husband was "working late" and suspected of having an affair of his own.
- A couple who hosted a family-oriented television talk show which, through the husband's efforts, eventually degenerates into a sleazy, tabloid talk-type show.
Sometimes, the judge would interview minor children involved in cases where child custody was an issue.
During the latter seasons of the 1985-92 life, some divorce proceedings were played out over multiple shows, as though it were a major criminal trial. Some litigants spent a majority of a show on the witness stand (rather than the usual five-minutes of testimony and one-minute cross-examination). The court reporters sometimes interviewed the litigants prior to each show. On some episodes, one or both of the attorneys would be portrayed by actors and become part of the show's plot (for example, one 1992 episode had a subplot where a litigant was sleeping with her attorney).
Occasionally, higher-profile cases would involve celebrities portraying themselves, for example Charles Nelson Reilly starred as himself in a 1989 episode.
Current life (1999–present)
Divorce Court was resurrected for a twentieth season several years after its first life of twelve seasons and its second life of seven seasons. The current life of Divorce Court, which entered its 14th season in fall 2012, is markedly different from its predecessors.
For instance, real couples – who had previously filed for divorce – argue their cases before the court; one was presented each day. Most cases involved betrayal, infidelity and trust-related issues.
After both sides present their arguments, the judge rules. Her decision includes finding in favor of one of the litigants (or, more often than not, declaring a joint decree) and resolving issues such as alimony and asset division. The judge's decisions are legally binding. As such, the modern version of Divorce Court is essentially a form of binding arbitration.
In some instances, the judge may withhold a decision to give the couple ample time to consider a reconciliation. Occasionally, the show may revisit an episode where time to explore reconciliation was offered to determine if the delay remedied or worsened the marriage.
In addition, the "longest running court show on television" is utilizing the world of social media upon entering into its fourteenth season with more "Behind-The-Scenes" footage and engagement with viewers across multiple social media platforms, including Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Tumblr, etc.
In 2006, the show was renewed for an eighth season of its present life (27th overall season); however, Judge Mablean Ephriam and 20th Television were unable to come to terms on a contract extension. During her many years presiding over Divorce Court, Ephriam was very humorous, mainly because of her noticeably quirky voice and shocked reactions to the litigants' outrageous behavior.
Lynn Toler, a former judge in Cleveland Heights, Ohio and judge of Power of Attorney in the series' last half season, took over the bench for the eighth season of Divorce Court, which premiered 11 September 2006. As the show's level-headed arbiter, Toler is usually seen providing counsel, words of wisdom, and trying to talk sense into the outrageous couples that appear before her. Toler has a strident vocal timbre and places emphasis on much of her speech.
The bailiff in the current version is Sgt. Joseph Catalano, a former 30-year veteran of the San Bernardino County Sheriff's Department (California). He retired in 2008. His son, Joe, Jr. (also a deputy with that agency) was assigned to the Barstow regional station, but since the series was gaining popularity, he was re-assigned to an undisclosed location for his safety. Joe, Jr. was the bailiff on Power of Attorney during its run.
Both shows were produced in the same studio in Burbank, California. However, the flag of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania is displayed behind the bench alongside the U.S. flag during shows aired in January 2009 as well as March 2011. The show now tapes at Fox Studios in Los Angeles.
Talon Beeson is the show's current announcer, succeeding Inger Tudor (2011–2012) and Jimmy Hodson (1999–2011).