|Genre||Nontraditional court show|
|Starring||Voltaire Perkins (1957–1962; 1967–1969)
Colin Male (1957–1962; 1967–1969)
William B. Keene (1985–1992)
Jim Peck (1985–1989)
Martha Smith (1989–1992)
Mablean Ephriam (1999–2006)
Lynn Toler (2006–present)
|Country of origin||United States|
|No. of seasons||34|
|Running time||60 minutes (1957–1967)
30 minutes (1967–present)
|Production company(s)||Monet Lane Productions (1999–present)|
Storer Broadcasting (1961–1967)
NBC Films (1967–1969)
Blair Television (1985–1992)
20th Television (1999–present)
|Picture format||Black-and-white (1957–1962)
480i SDTV (1957–2011)
480i 16:9 (2011–present)
1999 – present
Divorce Court is an American nontraditional court show that revolves around settling the disputes of couples going through divorces. The current edition of Divorce Court premiered in September 1999, is conducted as an arbitration-based reality court show, and is presided over by Lynn Toler, a former municipal court judge from Cleveland Heights, Ohio. The series is produced by Monet Lane Productions and distributed by 20th Television.
Each edition of Divorce Court has aired in syndication, and with a total of thirty-four seasons spread across its three incarnations it is one of the longest-running syndicated television programs of all time. Divorce Court holds the record for longest running court show of all time, leading the second place show The People's Court by five years.
On September 2, 2013, Divorce Court entered its 34th season, marking the current version's 15th anniversary. On April 9, 2014, Divorce Court was renewed for two more seasons, taking it into 2016–17.
Prior to the premiere of the currently running version, all of the previous incarnations of Divorce Court were presented in the form of dramatic reenactments of real-life divorce cases.
The first Divorce Court series began airing in 1957 and ran until 1962, to be revived in 1967 for an additional two-season run. The first two versions starred actor Voltaire Perkins in the role of jurist, with Colin Male as the court reporter. In its first year Divorce Court aired locally in Los Angeles on independent station KTTV as a weekly, live, one-hour program. In 1958 KTTV began recording Divorce Court on Ampex videotape and syndicated the program nationally; Divorce Court was the first American television program to be distributed through the then-new, revolutionary technology. Production resumed in the fall of 1967 following a five-year hiatus, this time as a half-hour daily series recorded in color. This second series of Divorce Court ended in 1969, though reruns continued to be offered to some stations throughout the early 1970s.
A revival began in 1985 and featured retired Supreme Court of California judge William B. Keene as the presiding jurist and former game show host Jim Peck as court reporter (replaced in 1989 by former Scarecrow and Mrs. King star Martha Smith). This edition ran until 1992, with reruns airing on the USA Network during the early 1990s. When the reality-based current edition began in 1999, former Los Angeles prosecutor Mablean Ephriam was chosen to preside. Ephriam lasted until the end of the 2005–06 season when former Power of Attorney jurist Toler took over.
The twentieth season, which began the show's third and present version, debuted in September 1999, by which time court shows across the board had made a transition to a format involving former judges or attorneys 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 its counterparts, Divorce Court was reformatted accordingly.
1957–69 and 1985–92 versions
While touted as presenting real cases to television audiences, the stories from earlier versions of Divorce Court were actually dramatized, scripted 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 version, 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 guest-starred as himself in a 1989 episode.
Current version (1999–present)
Divorce Court was resurrected for a twentieth season in the fall of 1999. The current version of Divorce Court, which entered its 15th season in fall 2013, 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 involve 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.
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 September 11, 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 reassigned 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.