{ subscribe_url: '/share/sites/library-of-congress-blogs/navcc.php' }

“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.

From Our Collection: Celebrating Mary McLeod Bethune

Mary McLeod Bethune “Invest in the human soul. Who knows, it might be a diamond in the rough.” These are the words visitors to the U.S. Capitol will now see at the newly installed statue honoring Mary McLeod Bethune. Today’s unveiling symbolizes Bethune’s life’s work as an American educator, Civil Rights activist and humanitarian, and […]

National Film Registry: Celebrating Liza and “Cabaret”

So much to celebrate as this sweet little girl turns 76, and the musical film that made her a star celebrates 50 years since its 1972 theatrical debut. Liza Minnelli was born on March 12, 1946 into true Hollywood royalty and all that it encompasses. Her father, the great film director Vincente Minnelli, and her […]

National Film Registry: “All My Babies” (1953)

  Each year, the Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASALH) sets a theme for February’s Black History Month, and this year, they’ve chosen the impact and importance of Black Health and Wellness. According to their website, “this theme acknowledges the legacy of not only Black scholars and medical practitioners in […]

Opening the Treasure Chest: National Silent Movie Day

Today we celebrate National Silent Movie Day by opening the treasure chest and sharing some of the resources that the Library of Congress offers to research and expand your interest in these classic and iconic motion pictures. The American silent feature film era lasted from 1912 to 1929 with nearly 11,000 feature films produced, but […]

Happy Birthday, Bob Hope!

This is a guest post by Frances Allshouse and Susie Booth, librarian/catalogers in the Moving Image Section. Wednesday, May 29, 2019, would have been Bob Hope’s 116th birthday and we couldn’t let the day go by without a bit of a celebration.  This year, our gift is the recently-formed Bob Hope moving image processing project. […]

Jazz Appreciation in Moving Images and Recorded Sound

April is Jazz Appreciation Month! The Smithsonian National Museum of American History began this month-long celebration in 2001 to encourage people to listen to, read about, and play jazz music. Unsurprisingly, jazz is well-represented in the Motion Picture, Broadcasting and Recorded Sound Division at the Library of Congress, from commercial recordings to film and more. […]

Jazz Appreciation in Moving Image and Recorded Sound

April is Jazz Appreciation Month! The Smithsonian National Museum of American History began this month-long celebration in 2001 to encourage people to listen to, read about, and play jazz music. Unsurprisingly, jazz is well-represented in the Motion Picture, Broadcasting and Recorded Sound Division at the Library of Congress, from commercial recordings to film and more. […]

New Additions to the National Screening Room!

A few months ago, we launched the National Screening Room—a new digital collection featuring films that showcase the wealth and diversity of the Library’s moving image collections. The films range from early silent shorts from the Library’s Paper Print Collection to newsreels and actualities, from home movies to educational and sponsored films, from television to […]

All-American News: The First African American Newsreel

In celebration of African American History Month, we’re highlighting a newsreel featured in the National Screening Room that was produced during the 1940s and 1950s specifically for black audiences. Begun in 1942, these newsreels were originally intended to encourage participation in and support for the war effort, and to reflect an African American perspective on […]