Tuesday, May 13, 2008

'Mediator Mary'

Imagine a reality-TV show like 'Judge Judy,' except instead of an authoritarian, scolding judge, you'd have a mediator facilitating a collaborative resolution between the disputing parties.

Wouldn't this be a great way to teach Americans about the cheaper, faster, saner road to conflict resolution? Wouldn't this mass-media exposure help deter lawsuits and violence, and promote forward-looking, solution-oriented, collaborative peacemaking?

I'm not the first to contemplate this, as evidenced by the number of times I've been asked to audition as the mediator for shows like this, which have been in various stages of development for the past decade or so.

Since I'm a mediator who happens to have a background in hosting and producing syndicated talk shows, I must have seemed like a natural. But then I'd show up for "camera tests" and bump into lots of familiar faces -- fellow mediators who didn't have any TV experience, but by virtue of their dynamic personalities and/or telegenic qualities, I suppose, were invited to try out. We'd see each other so often in the reception areas, awaiting our on-camera interviews, it became a running joke. "Break a leg!"

Bafflingly, none of these shows ever made it to air, even as "judge" shows thrive and multiply.

In my mediation stump speech, which I deliver to community gatherings and classrooms, I share my dream of 'Mediator Mary' replacing 'Judge Judy,' of educating the public by entertaining them. After one such presentation, a TV producer approached me and said, "Let's do it!" So we set about packaging a presentation, and shopping it around. As is often the case in Hollywood, nobody rejected it, but nobody greenlighted it either.

Why not?

The biggest stumbling block was educating TV executives about mediation. Most were vaguely aware of the concept, but to them it was hazy, obscure, abstract. (Hostage negotiations? Labor union strikes?) And if they weren't instantly familiar with it, they argued, sparking audience interest would be an uphill battle.

But even after we patiently walked them through TV-friendly "community mediation" loglines (e.g. warring neighbors, feuding cousins), the objections piled up.

First, a judge is perceived as a more dynamic character than a mediator. Home audiences root for a finger-wagging, ass-kicking, no-nonsense SOB -- not a softhearted, touchy-feely, Kumbaya-humming, empathic nice guy. They want Dr. Phil, not Mr. Rogers.

Secondly, it was explained to us, audiences want to see clear winners and losers -- with the "bad guy" getting his comeuppance, so that the audience can vicariously identify with the "good guy" getting vindication and revenge. Forget about some saccharine scenario where everybody shakes hands and goes home happy. Not good drama, we were told.

Plus, there were logistical problems. A judge can control the proceedings so that they fit neatly into digestible segments between commercials, and wrap them up so that decisions are handed down within the half-hour framework. How could TV accomodate the unpredictably amorphous structure of mediation, which doesn't end until both parties say it's over?

We assured them that there was more visual drama in a mediation than in a courtroom -- with the parties going at each other Jerry Springer-style, in ways that no judge would permit. We assured them that mediators could be quite charismatic, and the magic they help create can be compelling and captivating. We assured them that we could find a tough mediator who could muscle the parties toward resolution before the final bell.

The TV execs were uniformly bemused by our persistence in wanting to launch this novel concept, and routinely replied: "We like your energy. Why don't you just bring us another judge show? We can always use more of those."

So we raised the money, hired a crew, rented and dressed a soundstage, and professionally shot and edited our own mediation-themed pilot. It involves a divorcing couple in a "Green Card marriage" who are bickering over the division of high-priced assets. Some of the racier revelations (e.g. the wife's affair with her boss) would give most soap operas a run for their money. Tempers flare, accusations are hurled, and just when all seems hopeless, the mediator guides them to a mutually forged resolution: The wife gets to keep the Porsche if she returns all the diamonds and pearls that the husband had lavished upon her.

Had this case gone to court, all those shiny gems would have ended up in the pockets of the lawyers, and the couple would have spent anguish-filled months trying to achieve what they accomplished in one day.

Sure, Judge Judy could have handled this case, and it would have made decent entertainment. Probably either the husband or wife would have come out ahead, and whoever was cheering for them would feel righteous, and whoever was hissing them would feel robbed. Would the home audience for Mediator Mary find gratification in a resolution that both parties feel is equitable? That's what we'd like to test. And we're hoping an innovative TV executive will have the moxie to help us do it.

Meanwhile, we're looking for investors and more cases to shoot -- so send them our way: JerryLazar (at) gmail (dot) com. Thanks!

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