Q. Is it possible to make a good reality show that relates to law (other than the COPS format)? If so, describe.
A. Yes, but it's easier to make bad reality TV shows: Bailiff 911; Appellate Fear Factor; World Circuit League Wrestling (Easterbrook's tagging in, the 7th Circuit's going to crush the 5th Circuit en banc!)... the possibilities are endless.
Background on Law-Related Reality TV
Besides CourtTV’s trial coverage, there have been four basic formats of law-related reality TV shows: (1) The COPS / First 48 / Animal Cops format: cameramen follow law enforcement officers as they perform their duties. (2) The People’s Court / Texas Justice / Judge [Insert Name Here] format: two bozos in an ADR courtroom yell at each other until the judge gives one of them a nanny-scolding. (3) The Law Firm format: lawyers compete Apprentice-style for a spot in “the firm” by trying ADR cases in a faux-courtroom. (4) America’s Most Wanted format: re-enact a crime with narration and then show photos of the perp(s).
In general, these law “reality” shows resemble reality about as closely as law school resembles the practice of law. Compare Judge Judy with an actual proceeding in small-claims court. Lawyers competing in the courtroom was so ridiculous that NBC yanked The Law Firm after two episodes. The closest they come to reality is the COPS format. Even there, the department chooses the officer to be followed, and it goes without saying that John Q. Officer is on his best behavior. When was the last time you saw a Rodney King-style beatdown on COPS?
What is a “good” law-related reality TV show?
Good is a subjective term. For network executives, “good” is roughly synonymous with “popular.” But good could also mean some combination of entertaining and informative. Depending on which definition you use, two good law-related reality shows could be created by modifying existing reality shows: Real World Law School and Posner’s Court.
Using the good as popular definition, I propose modifying Real World to be comprised of incoming 1Ls.
Real World Law School would include all the traditional 1L archetypes: the gunner, the frat boy, the public-interest hippie, the nerd, the socialite, the stoner etc. as they live together through their 1L year. RWLS would yield about the same amount of petty backstabbing, binge drinking, and random shacking up as is found in MTV’s signature show. Viewers would have the added benefit of seeing professors rip into the cast members when they partake of that $2500 beer tab courtesy of Aynahl & Retentive LLP in lieu of reading the next day’s cases.
Better yet would be a law-related reality show that is both entertaining and informative. By informative, I mean the viewer would learn something about the law. COPS almost falls into this category, except that it informs the audience by counterexample, and it doesn’t inform about the law as much as about what not to do to avoid getting caught breaking the law. It’s a substantive-procedural distinction. For example, I have no idea what the specific laws are on marijuana possession, but thanks to COPS, I do know that if you have a joint not to put it behind your ear when driving. (Also, you can’t outrun the K-9 unit. If you have a brick of cocaine in the trunk, don’t give the officer permission to search the trunk.) These would seem to be common sense, but keep in mind there’s little overlap in the Venn Diagram of blawg readers and meth-scoring ass-sellers.
Posner’s Court would be along the lines of Judge Judy, but with more decorum, less smarmy backtalk from the judge, and an explanation by the judge of the law being applied. The cases are real. . . in our forum, Posner’s Court.
In the days before ESPN, a popular TV commercial which aired during football games was “IBM Presents: You Make the Call.” Each Sunday, the commercials would show footage of a convoluted play (usually involving consecutive fumbles from each side plus an inadvertently kicked ball plus mascot interference.) The narrator would then pause the clip and boldly announce, “You make the call!” A commercial would air, giving armchair referees time to argue amongst themselves. After the commercial, the correct answer would be given and the relevant rule would be explained and applied. Almost always, the rule hinged on some obscure rule (Raiders fans think “tuck rule”). It seems that if your average football fan can follow IRAC for the minutiae of football jurisprudence, your average Judge Judy fan could likewise follow Posner’s explanation of how comparative negligence and joint and several liability apply in the instant case.
The prospect almost makes me wish I owned a television.