Why Amazon Is in Business With Judge Judy

CULVER CITY, Calif. — And you thought Amazon’s ambitions in Hollywood were limited to a single streaming service.

Amazon Prime Video, of course, ranks as one of the world’s pre-eminent subscription providers of on-demand films and television shows. Last year, Amazon spent $11 billion on entertainment programming, a 41 percent increase from a year earlier. In May, Amazon bought Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer to supercharge its content pipeline even further. For their $13 monthly Prime membership fee, subscribers will soon have exclusive access to “Thursday Night Football.”

But the internet giant also owns another streaming service, one that has mostly gone unnoticed. It’s called IMDb TV. Started in 2019 with little fanfare, IMDb TV is free, supported by ads, mostly stocked with reruns — and about to come out of the shadows.

Next Monday, IMDb TV will unveil “Judy Justice,” a court show starring the straight-talking Judge Judith Sheindlin, 79, whose wildly popular “Judge Judy” ended in May after 25 years. The new show is essentially a supersized version of the old one — a certified hit, or so IMDb TV hopes, taken from the dying medium of daytime broadcast syndication. The cases being litigated involve amounts up to $10,000. (It was $5,000 before.) Her on-camera courtroom staff has been expanded to include a stenographer and a law clerk.

Sarah Rose, 24, a law school student who happens to be Judge Sheindlin’s granddaughter, is the clerk. At the end of each “Judy Justice” episode, Ms. Rose and Judge Sheindlin meet in chambers and chew some fat.

“Sometimes I can add something from a younger perspective,” Ms. Rose said, referring to America’s crankiest judge as Nana. “The term LMAO came up on a case the other day, for example, and she needed me to interpret.”

“Judy Justice” is similar to “Judge Judy,” which ran for 25 years on broadcast networks.Credit…Tracy Nguyen for The New York Times

Judge Sheindlin has ditched the much-discussed clip-on pony tail she wore in the final seasons of “Judge Judy.” (Asked by a reporter to address viewer consternation over her hair, she responded with an epic eye roll.) But she remains defiant — a plain-spoken star at a time when expressing an incongruent opinion can result in vicious blowback online.

“I bring eyeballs because, at least for one hour a day, people see that someone is holding the line,” Judge Sheindlin said over lunch. “I’m unafraid to call out irresponsible, un-American behavior.If we settle for mediocrity, we get what we deserve.”

A waiter stopped by to top off her glass of rosé. “I think I know the boundary, the limit, of where it’s appropriate to go,” she continued. “I might say to a male defendant: ‘So you’re 22 and you have six kids and no job. Find something else to do with that organ!’ But I don’t say what I would really want to say, which is, ‘Bring it up here to my bench.’”

She slammed her knife down on the table. “Whack,” she said gleefully.

Amazon is counting on Judge Sheindlin’s chutzpah to help establish IMDb TV as a bigger player in what has become, surprisingly, one of the hottest areas in media: free, ad-supported video on demand. In addition to IMDb TV, which is named after the Internet Movie Database, the crowded field includes Pluto TV, Tubi, Peacock, Roku Channel, Crackle and Xumo. They mostly aggregate older films (“Despicable Me 2,” “Grumpy Old Men”) and reruns (“Little House on the Prairie,” “Good Times”).

IMDb TV also offers series like “Mad Men.” Credit…Justina Mintz/AMC, via Associated Press

Once seen as dowdy cousins to subscription services like Disney+ and Netflix, which do not carry ads, ad-supported platforms soared in popularity during the pandemic as viewers sought out entertainment comfort food. More viewers than anticipated seem to be willing to put up with a few ad breaks, analysts say. IMDb TV, for one, claims to carry about 50 percent fewer ads than a traditional broadcast network.

“Free is always compelling,” said Guy Bisson, executive director of Ampere Analysis, noting that subscription fatigue is setting in among some consumers.

Ad-supported streaming services had about 108 million viewers in the United States in 2020, according to eMarketer. The number is expected to climb to 157 million by 2024. (IMDb TV does not disclose raw viewing numbers. In May, it said that year-over-year viewership had increased 138 percent and that 62 percent of viewers were ages 18 to 49, the demographic that advertisers pay a premium to reach.)

The online video advertising market is expected to total roughly $82 billion in the United States in 2024, up from $27 billion in 2018, according to Ampere Analysis.

IMDb TV is expected to be rebranded, although Amazon has given no date. (Asked if she had complained to Amazon about the awkward name and pressed the company to change it, Judge Sheindlin said, “I have, and they are.” An IMDb TV spokeswoman declined to comment.) At the moment, only 33 percent of entertainment consumers are aware of IMDb TV, ranking the service near the back of the ad-supported pack, according to Screen Engine/ASI. Most competitors are in the 40s.

Last year, IMDb TV rolled out its first original drama, “Alex Rider,” based on the popular spy novels for teenagers. A second season is on the way, along with other originals, including a half-hour drama from Dick Wolf, the king of law enforcement TV; a spinoff of “Bosch,” the long-running Prime Video series; a comedy starring Martha Plimpton; and a drama adapted from the 1999 erotic thriller “Cruel Intentions.” Under a new agreement between Amazon and Universal Pictures, Prime Video and IMDb TV will share certain streaming rights to Universal’s theatrical films.

In recent months, the IMDb TV app has become available on a wide variety of devices, including iPhones. This fall, Amazon will begin selling its own smart TVs with IMDb TV automatically installed.

“Judy Justice” is not without risk. Old “Judge Judy” episodes (there are more than 5,000) continue to run in syndication on local stations, and viewers don’t seem to mind the recycling. About seven million have been tuning in, a decline of only 11 percent from May, when new episodes were airing, according to Nielsen data.

How much Judge Sheindlin does one planet need? “You can never have enough of someone who is as smart and as funny and as entertaining as she is,” said Lauren Anderson, IMDb TV’s co-head of programming.

The core daytime audience is decidedly senior. Will Judge Sheindlin’s older fans be able to find IMDb TV’s corner of the internet? (Access to IMDb TV programming, including “Judy Justice,” is easiest through Prime Video.)

Judge Sheindlin, 79, said she was “relatively worry free” about her new show.Credit…Tracy Nguyen for The New York Times

“Judy Justice” also represents an experiment for streaming. For the first time, a service is trying to replicate daytime television’s traditional rhythm: New episodes will arrive five days a week and accumulate in a bingeable library. IMDb TV ordered 120 episodes of “Judy Justice,” the largest first-season order ever by a streamer, analysts say. Amazon has an option to order another 120.

“We see a space to become a modern broadcast network,” Ms. Anderson said. “While we have seen the ratings decline on broadcast, it’s not because audiences are rejecting the content. It’s about convenience and the delivery route.”

Judge Sheindlin deemed herself “relatively worry free” about her new show. Unlike traditional syndication, streaming doesn’t have the pressure of publicly reported ratings. And she doesn’t exactly need the job.

“I did the math, and I’ve already got enough for 24-7 nursing care until I’m 150,” she said. (CBS paid her $47 million to tape 260 episodes of “Judge Judy” a year. She declined to discuss her “Judy Justice” salary. Amazon is paying her about $25 million for the first 120 episodes, analysts estimate.)

Other television icons — David Letterman, Jay Leno, Jon Stewart, Oprah Winfrey — have approached streaming as a slower, more refined second act. But Judge Sheindlin is sticking with the tried and true. A few weeks ago, she was on the “Judy Justice” set at Amazon Studios doing what she does best — yelling at a dognapper.

“Don’t try to talk over me, madam!”

Camera operators moved toward her bench for a close-up. Judge Sheindlin, wearing a maroon robe (instead of “Judge Judy” black) with a more stylish collar (begone with you, lace doily), tapped her finger impatiently.

“I’m waiting for your proof!”

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