BROOKE GLADSTONE: Court TV may have marked its tenth anniversary on the air this week, but as Alicia Zuckerman reports, courtrooms have been riveting TV audiences for decades. [PERRY MASON THEME MUSIC UP AND UNDER]
ALICIA ZUCKERMAN: Perry Mason first emerged in the pages of nearly 90 paperbacks by Erle Stanley Gardner in the 1930s, and then on a popular radio series. But in 1957, it was the actor Raymond Burr who personified the Perry Mason that lingers today. Ron Simon is the television curator at the Museum of Television and Radio in New York City.
RON SIMON: We always go back to the f-- that one looming figure of Raymond Burr in television. He created the lawyer. There was something about the incarnation as seen on a regular basis that created the-- in the public opinion what a lawyer was like.
ALICIA ZUCKERMAN: After Perry Mason, courtroom shows proliferated, ranging in tone from The Defenders to Night Court to L.A. Law. Simon sees that last show as a turning point.
RON SIMON: The thing that, certainly that Steven Bochco and David Kelley brought to the legal genre is that the personal life of the L.A. Law character or Ally McBeal are as important as the legal cases. In many ways the craziness that is reflected in the private life erupts in the craziness of the court system -- this total confusion of private and public realms.
ALICIA ZUCKERMAN: In fact the trials on Kelley's The Practice deal largely with the lawyers' personal issues, and in this scene from his show Ally McBeal, law partners and best friends John Cage and Richard Fish are going to couples therapy to resolve their issues.
CHARACTER FROM ALLY McBEAL: That's my problem is that he always gets to go first! His needs are always prioritized over those of other people. And the horror of that is compounded when you consider that the center of his very being is nothing but sex and money! Sex and money! Sex and money!
ANNOUNCER ON LAW AND ORDER: In the criminal justice system, the people are represented by two separate yet equally important groups--: the police who investigate crime and the district attorneys who prosecute the offenders. These are their stories. [LAW AND ORDER THEME MUSIC UP AND UNDER]
ALICIA ZUCKERMAN: Law and Order which wrapped up its 11th season this spring isn't character-driven. The case is the star. Executive producer Jeffrey Hayes.
JEFFREY HAYES: The first show we did was-- the Mayflower Madam show which we called By Hook or by Crook, and then the second show we did was the Bernie Goetz story which we called Subterranean Homeboy Blues. "Ripped from the headlines" sounds easy. What's hard is to make it dramatically interesting once you get past the crime; once you get into the prosecution.
ALICIA ZUCKERMAN: Two years ago creator Dick Wolf launched a spinoff series-- Law and Order: Special Victims Unit. Next season Law and Order: Criminal Intent will join the primetime lineup, and the original show was recently renewed through May 2005. Hayes explains what he thinks makes the show so successful.
JEFFREY HAYES: In our courtroom scenes, if you look we do a lot of cutaways to the victim's relatives. A lot of times we'll stop in the middle of a trial and go to the judge's chambers and -- or do a couple of scenes with the jury out. But to me all that's part of the courtroom drama aspect of it.
SAM WATERSTON AS ATTY ON LAW & ORDER: Mr. Robinette'll ask you to feel sorry for Jenny Mays. That's all right. You can feel sorry for her. But don't forget that there is a dead man here. And don't forget Alex Corbin was abducted by the woman who got him addicted to crack in her womb.
ALICIA ZUCKERMAN: If fictionalized court shows came from Perry Mason, what's the origin of reality court shows? Ron Simon has an answer.
RON SIMON: The interesting thing is that reality courtroom drama was also with television from the beginning. If you consider the McCarthy hearings an extended drama in the '50s, then you can see that television was dealing with real life situations almost from the beginning. There was something intriguing about the courtroom situation.
LAWRENCE WELCH: Let us not assassinate this lad further, senator.
SENATOR JOSEPH McCARTHY: Well, let's, let's, let's--
LAWRENCE WELCH: You've done enough. Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency? *
JUDGE JUDY: Are you not following what I'm saying to you?
JUDGE JUDY: It is not piercing through? If somebody you feel is trying to control your life, you don't put them in a situation where they can do that!
ALICIA ZUCKERMAN: Where courtroom dramas have historically focused on the lawyer, reality shows set the judge at center stage. Today there are around ten of these shows that emulate small claims court. Many of them feature some street smart judge like Judge Judy who impart their wisdom with a sharp tongue. [PEOPLE'S COURT THEME MUSIC]
ALICIA ZUCKERMAN: Twenty years ago there was just one -- the People's Court. When Judge Wapner went on the air in 1981, he generally handled the People's Court with sobriety and respect. Nowadays TV courtrooms need to put the ante to pull in viewers. Again, curator Ron Simon.
RON SIMON: The archetypical silent judge who listens and then reacts is really not someone who plays that well on television. You need someone who motivates the action.
ALICIA ZUCKERMAN: Now on its fourth Judge, Marilyn Milian, the People's Court has taken on characteristics of its high intensity imitators. [LOUD GAVELING]
MARILYN MILIAN: We're done, and now is the part where the -[...?...] part -- this is the part where the judge rules and no one interrupts her.
ALICIA ZUCKERMAN: Stu Billet, the show's creator and producer, says that all these shows are sort of interchangeable, but it doesn't matter because the public's appetite for them is insatiable.
STU BILLET: They're the soup du jour. The only difference, really, is the judge; like game shows back in the '60s and '70s -- there were 35 game shows on the air.
ALICIA ZUCKERMAN: Now millions of people are watching the justice system play out on the small screen.
FLOYD ABRAMS: It's a problem because these people then go to sit on juries, and they have some tendency to think they know more than they do.
ALICIA ZUCKERMAN: First Amendment lawyer Floyd Abrams.
FLOYD ABRAMS: People for example in criminal cases want to know where the fingerprints are--; what the DNA is -- when the police don't always get fingerprints and they don't always take DNA sampling.
ALICIA ZUCKERMAN: Abrams still applauds the notion of court shows, both fiction and reality. In fact he's been an advocate -- literally -- for cameras in the real life courtroom.
FLOYD ABRAMS: I had a judge who told me once that because I represented Court TV in a successful effort to get television into the O.J. case, that I was personally responsible for the decline and fall of the legal system.
ALICIA ZUCKERMAN: But few people complained about the Army McCarthy broadcasts undermining the legal system. Most thought it was good for democracy. It turns out what was good for democracy may even be better for ratings. For On the Media in New York, I'm Alicia Zuckerman. [MUSIC]