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“The Court of Human Relations”: A Pioneer of Reality TV

                                     The “Court” is in session

Though titled “Court of Human Relations,” this obscure, 1959 NBC-TV daytime program was far less “Judge Judy” than a more emotional “Meet the Press.”

“Court” had begun on radio, the brainchild of its producer/host A.L. Alexander, and had the lofty goal of bringing the process of mediation to the media while also paying tribute to “the drama of life itself.”

For each half-hour episode, overseen by Alexander, a real-life person or couple—“the claimants” —would appear before a tribunal of esteemed experts (often a sociologist, a lawyer, and a clergyman) and divulge a problem they were having in their lives on which they were seeking guidance.  Then, with carefully measured authority, that show’s panel would ask a few questions and issue some (usually) sage advice.

On this series, there were no “winners,” no “losers,” and no money exchanged.  The show was a “court” only in that it strove to be impartial and surprisingly dispassionate, and, as stated in Lawrence’s own often long and wordy openings, always adhered to the adages that “there’s two sides to every story” and that the show’s “primary allegiance” was “to the truth.”  You can watch 44 episodes of “Court of Human Relations” on the National Screening Room.

For the viewer of today, there are many notable, interesting aspects related to this short-lived and long-obscured program.

For example, throughout each installment, there remains an over-reaching and arch formality, in both dress and address:  the women who appear are inevitably seen in hats and their other formal best; for the men, there are gray flannel suits and, sometimes, the flash of a metal cuff-link as it glistens under the studio lights.  All participants  are referred to with respectful prefixes—“Mr.,” “Miss.”  No one interrupts.  No one raises their voice.  And, most strikingly, there is no studio audience to interject, or whoop or holler, throughout any part of the discussion.

Yet, for all its reserved nature, “Court” was remarkably upfront in the topics it decided to take on.  During its brief television run, “Court” addressed such issues as nudism, gambling, corporal punishment in schools, “trial marriage” and all manner of marital and family strife including (as noted in some of the TV listings of the day):

Original press release for “The Court of Human Relations”

–Parents reject a daughter because of their dissatisfaction with her marriage;

–A devoted mother who makes too many sacrifices for her children;

–A newly married woman and her husband’s family [disagree] over possession of the children by his previous marriage.

As notable as some of the topics the program tackled were the experts who participated and offered their assistance.  Acclaimed novelists Pearl S. Buck and Fanny Hurst were just two of the frequent guests on the panel, and they were often joined by such other distinguished guests as Norman Vincent Peale; six time Socialist candidate for President Norman Thomas; the pastor Dr. Robert James McCracken; prominent sociologist Dr. Ralph E. Davis; and the Honorable Anna Kross, Judge.

Like many TV programs of the era, “Court” had begun on radio where (under various names but always hosted by Alexander) the program aired successfully from 1937 to 1953.  In either medium, Alexander always had high-minded ambitions for his creation, seeing it far less as entertainment than as a public and community service.  He said in a 1959 interview, “Our cases are not based upon human misery, and we do not have people appear before the court because their problems are of a sensational nature.”

The program rather belatedly came to TV in 1959 when the NBC network bumped its afternoon game show “Haggis Baggis” for the Alexander production.

Unfortunately, what had been successful on radio proved far less so on television and certainly far less liked.  After the TV version debuted, “Variety” called the show “a study in commercial perversion.”  And William Ewald, in a scathing review for UPI, called the show “a cheap peep show, a keyhole cavalcade, and a rather mournful reflection on the taste of TV programmers.”

Ratings-wise, the program was seemingly no more successful.  After debuting in June of 1959, it was gone by the middle of August when the network replaced it with reruns of their primetime sitcom “Blondie.”

Why did something that had been so enduring on radio turn out to be so short-lived on television?  Perhaps, despite the earlier presence of programs like “Queen for a Day” and CBS’s “Stand Up and Be Counted,” there remained something unseemly about real-life people (even if left unnamed) being so open about their real-life problems.  Perhaps on radio, where that medium’s inherently disembodied voices and unseen faces allowed the identities and emotions of the “claimants” to remain abstract, one was able to feel less like a voyeur.

Furthermore, in its transition from one medium to the next, the program seemed to do nothing with the expanded opportunities of the moving screen; the program’s production work is as stiff as some of the program’s participants.

Still, today, in the episodes housed and just recently digitized by the Library of Congress, “Court of Human Relations” is a fascinating time capsule.  The origins both of TV’s current daytime courtroom shows as well as such current talk shows as “Dr. Phil” are embedded here.  Though A.L. Alexander and his one-time panel of experts would no doubt be aghast at the free-for-all-ness with which interpersonal issues are now discussed (and depicted) on daytime television, this early program’s daringness and surprising frankness is fully replicated.

Sadly, though, “Court’s” extreme earnestness, respectful attitude and sincerity of purpose has not, one iota, persisted.

Alexander, who began his career as a radio announcer and, in 1932, was a platform commentator for the Democratic National Committee, passed away at age 61, in 1967.

 

Don’t hesitate to contact Ask a Librarian about the availability of “Court” materials or any other items in our collections.  Before you plan to come in and view any collection items, please get in touch with our reference staff in the Moving Image Research Center.

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