Be skeptical, loyal and enjoy the drama
Whether she’s on-screen or off, Judge Judy always holds court.
TV judge Judy Sheindlin is one of daytime TV’s biggest personalities, drawing a salary of about $47 million yearly. Since her eponymous reality court show debuted in 1996, it’s run continuously and been among the highest-rated non primetime programs to air on the small screen. That’s a far cry from her days as a Manhattan family court judge, where she pulled in a (still respectable) annual salary in the low six figures.
Sheindlin’s success is all the more notable because she’s a woman. Hollywood persistently compensates female stars less than their male counterparts and the 74-year-old magistrate also made her name well before Netflix and Amazon—who’ve offered more leading opportunities for women who aren’t 21 or Meryl Streep— pivoted to creating original video.
So how does Her Honor do it? Some of her negotiating tactics have come to light courtesy of the Hollywood Reporter, which obtained a transcript of her talking about her compensation. “Judge Judy” network CBS is being sued by a former partner, who claims its share in the reality show profits has been diluted by Sheindlin’s astronomical pay, and the judge sat down for a deposition last year in which she colorfully revealed how she made it.
Here, three tips to Sheindlin’s success.
- Be skeptical but not cynical. While Sheindlin was excited at being approached in the winter of 1995 by producers Sandi Spreckman and Kaye Switzer, she didn’t take the first offer made. The judge was initially told that she had 24 hours to respond, but instead hired entertainment attorney Nancy Rose upon the suggestion of “Seinfeld” star Larry David. Sheindlin also took on a jaded poise during the dealmaking process, constantly referring to Spreckman and Switzer as “the girls” and telling another party that she didn’t know him “from a hole in the wall, so I’m not certainly binding myself to you.
- Be loyal to your staff— they make or break the show. Shortly after producing the pilot of “Judge Judy,” Spreckman and Switzer were canned. Sheindlin says she didn’t know then that she had the power to demand their reinstatement, but she did testify on behalf of “the girls” when they sued their lawyer for neglecting to contractually bind them to Sheindlin. The judge also helped Switzer out financially when she fell on hard times. And when Sheindlin negotiates her compensation every three years with a CBS honcho, she often comes with salary demands for her staff too.
- Have a flair for drama. When Sheindlin sits down with CBS at Beverly Hills steakhouse Grill on The Alley, she puts her demands on a card in an envelope. She hands it over to the CBS president but says “Don’t read it now, let’s have a nice dinner. Call me tomorrow. You want it, fine. Otherwise, I’ll produce it myself” Once, a CBS exec came with demands on his own but she flatly told him that she wasn’t negotiating. It helps to be a bona fide reality TV big, but Sheindlin says she always gets her way.
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