Confessions Of A Reality TV Producer

By Sharon Houston

I work in syndicated daytime court TV. Ever watched Judge Judy or The People's Court? I haven't worked on those shows specifically but they're the most popular so I thought I'd use those as examples. (Since I'm still earning a living working on shows like these, I won't name my employers.) My job is to find the people who are willing to have their cases heard on TV and get them to L.A. so they can get justice while making TV magic happen.

On Getting No Respect
I've learned a lot from working in this genre of television. First, I get no respect in Hollywood because we're at the bottom of the Hollywood food chain. There's feature films, one hour dramas, half hour comedies, late night talk shows, commercials music videos, reality TV, daytime talk shows, student films, porn, snuff films, Jersey Shore, and then Daytime Court TV.

Second, most of the population that's heading to small claims court to sue someone doesn't have a full set of teeth. If we book you on the show and you don't have teeth, we'll buy them for you. I've been held hostage by litigants who said they weren't going on and I've had to threaten to take their teeth back. I've had others who said they wouldn't put their teeth in until we paid them money just for showing up. Recently, I had a litigant forget her teeth and I got in a lot of trouble for not reminding the person more than fifteen times to bring her teeth to L.A. Telling someone fourteen times isn't enough, apparently. Tape days are interesting, to say the least. Sometimes the cases are simple but the relationships between the litigants are complicated. Think about it: how angry are you that you take a day to go downtown to your local small claims office to spend $76.50 to sue someone over $100? I'd say you're pretty angry.

And for me, that's TV gold and I will do my best to talk you into having your case heard in our "courtroom." I always use quotes because even though it's a binding arbitration and the judges are actual judges, it's really a set that looks like a courtroom.

Producers Are Your Friend, Until The Show Is Over
When things don't go the way a litigant thinks they should go, and one is always disappointed because there's only one winner in court, it gets ugly. There is crying, anger, rage, security is called. The producers who held the litigant's hands for weeks to get them to L.A., who became their best friend, their therapist, their confidante? We fade into the background, and we never see these people again. It's not because we're jerks, it's because legally, there's nothing we can do about it. They'd react the same way in their local court. The difference is they'd go to jail afterwards. We don't have a jail here, or even a jail set.

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On The Sad Stories We Hear
While I'm searching for funny, interesting cases where the plaintiff and defendant have some kind of personal relationship, I hear a lot of sad stories. Like, really sad. The elderly are a population who really get taken advantage of and abused. I'm afraid to get old. Immigrants get taken advantage of by immigration lawyers who say they'll help the immigrant get a work Visa, but instead will leave them high and dry. Awful. I'm grateful that I'm not an immigrant.

I hear stories of girlfriends being betrayed by boyfriends. They're so angry they sue. That's never happened to me. Wait -- actually, it has. I just never sued over it. As a matter of fact, the more stories I hear, the more I realize that I'm just like the litigants I book on court shows. As one of my executive producers said, we're all one misstep away from being a litigant. Most of us are already there.

How We Find The Crazy Stories
You might be wondering where we find these people. Every show has researchers all over the country who pull claims from small claims court and send them our way. There's limited information on the claims, so sometimes you're basing your decision to reach out based on simple things.

For example, if you're from Detroit, Houston, Cleveland, Cincinnati, St. Louis, Kansas City, New Orleans, Indianapolis, Chicago, Milwaukee, Gary, or Atlanta, I'm calling you no matter what the case is about. Why? Because that's where crazy lives. I'm also going to call you if you're suing for pain and suffering, mental distress, mental agony, nightmares, and my favorite, loss of enjoyment of life. I also love it when Plaintiff wants to sue Defendant for being "triflin'." That's good stuff!

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Here's where the job gets really stressful: We have to make sure litigants get on their flight to L.A. A lot of great cases don't happen because the litigants are afraid to fly. Many times litigants have told me, "Jesus told me not to get on the plane." One lady I tried to book said, "If Jesus wanted me to fly he'd have made me a parakeet, a mosquito, a butterfly, a bat" and so on. I interrupted her list of things that can fly by noting the fact that Jesus rose from the dead so technically, he was the first to fly and would want her to fly, too. Didn't work.

Once they get to L.A. and its tape day, I have to get them hyped for their case. It's go time and my job depends on them giving us a show. I go over their cases and make sure they're on point with their story, the timeline of events, they speak up, and they fight for their case. It's like training a boxer and the courtroom is the ring.

Tape days are when all of the producing teams really come together. You do whatever it takes to make sure they are comfortable, open, and will put on their imaginary boxing gloves and get a TKO. All the teams come together to help prep litigants on tape days. I have some incredible people around me, colleagues that will go the distance for each other.

This world of daytime court TV is bizarre. At times it's a complete freak show, and when I say "at times," I mean most of the time. It's also colored my life in positive ways. My fellow producers on court shows are the greatest people I've ever met. Aside from one or two whom I had "personality problems" with, meaning I had a personality and they had a problem with it, I have made lifelong friends.

I've learned a lot about people -- good and bad. A lot can't be trusted. Sometimes even college-educated people don't care about basic dental care or having a full set of teeth. Very few people are faithful to their significant others (it isn't just men who cheat). People get irate over stupid stuff and want to sue for the maximum payout of five grand.

Even the most damaged person has room in their heart to receive love. Compassion is for everyone, even the most arrogant, seemingly soulless person.

When people get over their fear of flying, their confidence goes up and they feel like they can conquer the world.

And lastly, I learned how to make a gourmet treat out of crappy office coffee. If you put half of a sugar-free Swiss Miss in it with one Mini-Moo and a Sweet and Low, it's like you're drinking a Café Mocha in gay Pare-ee. I believe that act alone makes me a litigant.

Would you want to be a reality TV producer?
Yes1 (50.0%)
No1 (50.0%)

Sharon Houston is a producer, comedian, and podcaster living in Los Angeles. You can hear her podcast, "Daytime Justice", on iTunes and Stitcher. She also told her story on an episode of the KCRW podcast, Strangers. Follow her on Twitter, or check out her website.

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Id kill to be a producer! I think they have the most amazing job in the world. But from what i hear you need to know someone to even get near a position like that. I hear nepotism is rampant in Hollywood. That is why i wish i had family who worked in Hollywood.

March 25 2015 at 8:17 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Amu Stacks

This so funny

February 12 2015 at 11:31 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Could you please tell us what you mean by "the People's Court case was unique".I'd love to know what you're referring to.I'll try to check out your podcast,but since it's mentioned in these Comments,please explain.Thanks and great article.

May 17 2013 at 8:54 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I heard that the show pays the plantiff it they win. Is that true Sharon?

April 12 2013 at 4:52 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Andrea Martinez

what type of education is required and where can this education be found?

February 13 2013 at 6:46 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

What appears to be good drama for reality television court shows is what gives the judicial system a bad name. Viewers actually believe that these so called judges are going to preside legally over a case, but that's far from the truth. In essence your job is bring bring in ratings at any expense. No thanks I'd rather sleep at night.

September 12 2012 at 9:06 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
2 replies to bringthetruth1st's comment
Sharon Houston

You're wrong about the judges... they are legally presiding over a case. It's a binding arbitration. We just look for interesting, passionate people because it's TV. Most of the time, interesting, passionate people are irresponsible, can't keep their cell phones on, they flake, they call me at all hours about the minutia of their lives, and it's enough to drive someone mad. As far as the show goes, I'm only giving the people (you) what they want (entertainment). I don't sleep at night, but it's not because of what I do. It's because I have to make sure people get on their flights and since I'm on the West coast and most of them are on the East coast, it means I have to pull all-nighters to make sure people get here. That's me going the extra mile for you. :)

October 10 2012 at 6:10 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to Sharon Houston's comment

I found your article humorous and informative. Also, that you took the time to reply to a comment says a lot about your passion for your work. Keep it up--I like the court shows except for Judge Judy. She is far too rude to the litigants regardless of which side they are on. With JJ you know from the git go who she likes and who will win. Not a fan of Judge Joe Brown--he injects too much of his "humour" and very little substance. (Hope you don't work for that one--even if you do, that ok--you seem like a caring person who isn't in this for the "big bucks"--lol!

October 25 2012 at 9:41 AM Report abuse rate up rate down

Wow--you actually got a reply from the producer! Have never seen this before in comment sections.

October 25 2012 at 9:37 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Extremely funny, intelligent and feeling article.

August 16 2012 at 6:26 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

Lordy the stories one could tell about working on REALITY TV....

August 15 2012 at 7:23 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

Seems like people do get paid win or lose just not on whatever show you work for?

Also, seems like small claims judgements can be appealed and you just have no idea what goes on after they leave your show?

Also sounds like participants have sued the TV shows before just not the one you work for, or you aren't revealing it / aren't aware?

August 15 2012 at 4:55 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
2 replies to mapes's comment
Sharon Houston

1) I don't work on The People's Court. Sometimes people will get a small appearance fee ($100 or so) to help them cover lost wages. But they don't win their award no matter what the outcome. Nowhere on the link you provided does it state people get paid their JUDGEMENT win or lose. A small appearance fee, of course! People are taking two days off of work to come to have their case heard. It's the right thing to do.

2) NO, they can't be appealed. You can re-file but not after you've been on a court show. And I quote from the link YOU presented:
A small claims appeal is a "trial de novo" or "new trial."

3) The People's Court situation is unique. That's never happened before, EVER. If you took the time to listen to my podcast, you can see that I've devoted two episodes to the Michelle Parker case and I will be interviewing her sister, Lauren, on my podcast in the near future. We are working out scheduling now.

I believe I just won my case, Mapes.

August 16 2012 at 1:09 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

It does depend on what show you work on Mapes. Not all court shows pay their guests to come on. Everybody does get a per diem which is usually about $35 so that they can eat. Sometimes they don't even get that. It's really on a case to case basis, if they're coming from oot, or they're local.
Small claims judgments dont usually get appealed after they come on court shows. Usually the ruling is final, but of course people are sue happy so they'll find a way to appeal that judgment. Of course there is an exception to everything.

August 16 2012 at 1:02 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to Nyasha's comment
Sharon Houston

Nyasha is right.

August 18 2012 at 2:52 AM Report abuse rate up rate down

How on earth can she rate reality shows ahead of porn? Any porn!

August 15 2012 at 4:00 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

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