Remember when we used to lament the fact that there were no mediation tv shows?  Well we had Fairly Legal which was farcically formulaic and often a bit silly.  Now we have Untying the Knot, a new reality series on the Bravo network.  The show follows New Jersey divorce attorney-mediator Vikki Ziegler as she “mediates” property division issues for divorcing couples.  The reason for the quotes?  Here’s why. Read the following blurb from the show’s website summarizing the series:

When couples go from “I do” to “I don’t,” Vikki Ziegler is who they call to mediate, advise and divide their assets out of court. Each 30-minute episode features a different divorcing couple struggling to divvy up their belongings that range from dazzling diamonds to the family pets. Expert appraisers Michael and Mark Millea evaluate the items in question and help Vikki determine a fair division of assets. Why let a judge decide your fate when this “Divorce Diva” can cut through all the drama to determine who will get what?

Obviously having the mediator “determine a fair division of assets” doesn't sound like mediation; Ms. Ziegler is engaging in early neutral evaluation (ENE).  But ENE has gone the way of Betamax and is so confused with mediation that it’s not worth the time to fight it.  In fact, I’ve seen and heard of many well respected mediators engage in such behavior.  So, let’s hope that this practice does not become what the public expects from divorce mediation, as this clearly limits the good that mediation can do in divorce.  Nevertheless, clips of the show are going to be great for class this fall when we discuss facilitative and evaluative mediation styles.

I’ve watched all of the episodes that have aired to date (thank you DVR), and the show’s formula is simple – meet the divorcing couple and the property in dispute, the appraisers give their valuations of the items to Ms. Ziegler, and then Ms. Ziegler meets with the disputants and awards (yes, that’s the term she uses) the property and any corresponding financial offsets to the disputants.  I find the show to be interesting mostly because the emotion of divorce is on display – you can really feel for some of the couples.  Other interesting aspects include when Ms. Ziegler pushes a disputant and when disputants negotiate off of her evaluation.  I could do without some of the witty-made-for-tv banter about the parties and/or their possessions from Ms. Ziegler and the appraisers, but I’m sure the producers love that kind of snarkiness.

Enjoy or cringe watching the show, but do use it in class – it’s going to be a great teaching tool.

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By Art Hinshaw

Art Hinshaw is a Clinical Professor of Law and the Director of the Lodestar Dispute Resolution Program at ASU Sandra Day O'Conner College of Law. His research and teaching interests focus primarily on mediation and negotiation, often bridging ADR theory and practice. He is an avid writer and contributor to ADR Prof Blog.