Could CBS remove “Judge Joe Brown” from the bench?

Another long-time face in first-run syndication could disappear – or not.

Former Memphis judge Joe Brown, whose syndicated courtroom show is currently in its fifteenth season, could be removed from the bench if CBS Television Distribution doesn’t come to terms on a new contract, Broadcasting & Cable’s Paige Albinak reported exclusively on Wednesday.

While the show itself is renewed on stations through 2015, Brown’s contract with CTD and producer Big Ticket Television ends at the conclusion of this season. The dispute centers around a proposed salary cut for Brown, amid declining ratings, ad revenue, and license fees for the show. So far, there is no comment from any of the parties involved, and there is a chance Brown stays with CTD – although likely with reduced salary.

Judge Joe Brown was one of the last projects created by Worldvision Enterprises (whose roots lie with the original American Broadcasting Companies, Inc., known as ABC Films until 1973) before parent company Spelling Entertainment was bought out by Viacom, who transferred the series to Paramount Domestic Television. In 2006, Paramount TV became CBS Television Distribution after Viacom split into two separate companies.

If Brown walks, CTD is likely to replace him with another judge (an Indianapolis-area judge is being considered), and yes, there is precedent: just two years ago, Nancy Grace walked off the set of the CBS-distributed Swift Justice after the first season and was replaced in the second season by Eighth Circuit Court Judge Jackie Glass of Clark County, Nevada. Ratings – which were never strong to begin with – declined and CTD canceled Swift Justice last April.

Other “bait-and-switch” tricks pulled on stations in the past involved Group W talk shows: John Davidson for Mike Douglas in 1980 and Marilu Henner for Vicki Lawrence in 1994. Neither swap was successful.

Should contract negotiations fail between the two parties, Brown would evaluate his options – one of them would be taking the act to Byron Allen’s Entertainment Studios, already home to several courtroom shows. The parties declined comment.

Aside from genre leader Judge Judy, Judge Mathis, and The People’s Court, ratings for many court shows have declined as the genre has become a bit long in the tooth. For example, many Fox O&Os are pushing Divorce Court and Judge Alex to their low-rated My Network TV counterparts to make room for more non-conflict talk, information, and lifestyle shows, which draw more ad revenue than court shows. In Fox O&O markets where there is no MNT duopoly, the runs for both Divorce and Alex have been cut back to one episode a day.

While Judge Joe Brown is the second-ranked court show behind Judy, ratings have slipped 20 percent from a year ago to a 2.4 live-plus-same day rating in February (through the 17th), still a good number. In Chicago during October 2012, Judge Joe Brown averaged a 0.4/1 household live-plus-same day rating/share at 1 p.m. and a 0.5/1 at 1:30 p.m., finishing way behind a rerun of The People’s Court on WCIU (2.3/7). Brown, which originally cleared WPWR-TV in 1997 by Worldvision, returned a few years ago after airing on sister station WFLD-TV, where it aired at 11 a.m. and once put up decent numbers.

As they say in TV land… stay tuned.