Americans hold a fascination with “reality” television, especially court room dramas that allow participants to air their dirty laundry for the world to see. One of the most well-known reality based court shows, The People’s Court, has been allowing every day folk to do just that since 1981 (with the exception of a hiatus in the 1990s). The People’s Court has spawned a number of imitators including Judge Judy, Judge Joe Brown and Judge Mathis (just to name a few).
Now in its third stint on television, Divorce Court allows feuding spouses to discuss their divorce case in front of an arbitrator who will then make a ruling on issues such as unpaid bills, division of property, etc. What sparks viewer’s fascination with Divorce Court is the outrageous banter, accusations and reactions between parties. The impact of the show can be seen clearly after performing a search on social media as viewers are constantly engaging with the program by quoting guests and providing their own input on cases. Because of its high ratings and viewer interest, Divorce Court has been renewed through 2015.
A newcomer to the realm of reality based court room television is Paternity Court. Based off of the highest rated Maury episodes, parties come to the show with a request for paternity. Unlike Maury, however, Paternity Court guests are seeking DNA testing that not only proves paternity, but also to help with other family law issues, such as custody and visitation, or last wills and testaments. While still in its first season, the show is gaining audience attention with the outlandish behavior of the parties, none of which would be tolerated in an actual court of law. A judge presiding over a family law case in a real court room would never allow the parties to argue amongst themselves, sling baseless accusations and lies, or act out, but this behavior is allowed on Paternity Court. To the show’s credit, host and former attorney Lauren Lake will regularly follow up with past guests and help to provide help and resources once the show is done filming.
Divorce Hotel is a hopeful contender in the legal reality television field. The company, born in the Netherlands in 2011, plans to launch their brand stateside this fall. There are already six hotels located throughout the Netherlands that divorcing couples can check in to on Friday, with the hopes of having a settled and finalized divorce come Sunday. During their stay, the couple will have full access to a team of experienced legal professionals, and must meet with a mediator who will help to facilitate the divorce action. According to a CNN Money article, the company has successfully facilitated almost 100 divorces over the course of four years. While the concept is novel, if programming and viewer trends are any indication, the American version of Divorce Hotel will be a hit with audiences.
With the influx of legal, specifically divorce related, reality television programs, is the American media making a mockery of matrimonial and family law? In one sense, yes. Producers, television judges and the guests are turning a difficult experience into a court room circus. Tempers definitely flare throughout the divorce process; both in and out of the court room, but a judge would never allow the level of ruckus and disrespect that is often displayed on “reality” television.
Perhaps the media’s take on divorce and family law matters will take away from the severity of real life legal actions. Divorce, by its nature, is a trying time for those involved. From increased feelings of anger, depression, confusion or anxiety, to the uprooting and disruption of everyday life, divorce can drastically impact families. By allowing this view of divorce to be broadcasted, the media is mocking matrimonial and family law, along with the practitioners and parties involved in the sensitive cases. It is great that we live in a society where divorce is accepted and no longer has a negative stigma attached to it, but does that acceptance really have to be turned into such trashy entertainment?