The premise of the show was simple. It needed nothing in the way of technology, expertise or budget, yet the results would revolutionise television and create a brand new genre of programming. Had it not been for the Writers’ Guild Strike of 1988 though – and the dogged persistence of one man – the show that sparked that revolution might never have made it to air.
What links overdose victim Whitney Houston, steroids-taker Arnold Schwarzenegger, rehab regular David Hasselhoff, arrested cannabis user Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and the former First Lady of the United States of America, Nancy Reagan?
They all joined forces in 1985 – alongside others – to film the extremely powerful anti-drugs music video Stop The Madness.
Having seen the good that Band Aid and USA For Africa had both done for the world the previous year, Nancy Reagan decided that what her flagship Just Say No campaign really needed was a star-filled supergroup to write and release a single warning kids to keep away from drugs.
This was the result.
Although Stop The Madness didn’t manage to win the War On Drugs, the video would come to have a strangely significant effect on the course of popular culture over the next thirty years.
The video’s director was a man named John Langley. He got the gig on Stop The Madness after a self-produced documentary he’d made about the drugs trade (Cocaine Blues) had found its way to the First Lady’s office.
At the time, Langley was taking any job that was paying and his work on Cocaine Blues meant that he could very easily get his hands on the sort of gritty, hard-hitting footage that would give Stop The Madness its signature edge. His heart wasn’t hugely in it though. To him, this was just a stepping stone. His true focus lay on a pet project that he had developed and was desperate to get off the ground.
For years, Langley had been pitching a TV show to the networks. It dealt with a similar subject matter as his award-winning documentary but, for some reason, none of them seemed to be biting – and he couldn’t figure out why.
The premise was simple enough. Camera crews would ride along with police teams to document all of the exciting, dangerous and weird crimes that were happening in America – the sort of thing that he’d seen while out filming Cocaine Blues. Whether they were called to attend to a cat stuck up a tree, busting up a drug deal, or picking their way through a gruesome murder scene, Langley’s cameras would be there to capture it all and offer a raw, unflinching look at the real life of a cop.
It would be called: Cops.
Studio after studio took a pass on it, each of them telling Langley that the idea would never work. The reasons they gave him were always the same.
No host? Just cops? Get out of here.
No script? No narration? This is insanity.
Just handheld cameras? No studio segments? Thanks, but no thanks.
Langley had hoped that by doing some high profile work for the White House, he might be able to convince some desk jockey at a network that he was a big deal and get them to sign off on his pilot – but the call never came.
He did get a call from someone else though. Someone who had seen Langley’s work and was in desperate need of some help.
A Rivera Runs Through It
It’s hard to imagine anything that could embarrass Geraldo Rivera more than that ridiculous moustache of his but, in April 1986, such a thing occurred.
A huge concrete chamber had been discovered beneath the ground of the Lexington Hotel in Chicago. The Lexington had been a favoured hideout of notorious Illinois crime boss, Al Capone, and there was evidence to suggest that the vault had once belonged to him. Speculation about what it could contain was rife, so reporter Geraldo Rivera decided to make it the focus of a two-hour special on ABC: The Mystery Of Al Capone’s Vaults – a show in which he and a team of expert excavators would smash into the vault and uncover its contents live on TV.
Would they find a treasure chest of Capone’s tax-evaded riches? An arsenal of Mafia weaponry? Bootlegged booze? The dead bodies of his many enemies?
Nope. After two hours of chat, commercials and build-up, Geraldo tore down the wall to find… fuck all. A couple of empty bottles. Some dirt. A few bits of internal architecture. Absolutely nothing of value or interest whatsoever.
It was a national humiliation, broadcast live into millions of homes. So with his next show, American Vice: The Doping Of A Nation, he wasn’t taking any chances. He needed a full vault, or he was finished.
Geraldo had spent six months lining up plenty of quality segments for it. A 14 year old girl who had ratted her parents out to the cops. A newborn baby addicted to crack. Mandatory urine testing for the entire studio audience. But the big centrepiece of American Vice was going to be the three live drug busts.
It would be like nothing ever seen before on network television. Cameras would join three different police squads stationed out in three separate states and tag along as their tactical units battered down the doors of big-time drug dealers and hauled them off to the big house.
The stunt would make for dynamite TV – if it all worked out – so in order to make sure these busts didn’t go the way of Al Capone, he needed someone who knew the drugs trade, knew how to piece together a crew and knew how to work alongside the police.
He needed John Langley.
Langley, who was still trying to get a foot in the door for his Cops idea, saw another big opportunity. It wasn’t quite a pilot, no, but if he did this gig with Geraldo he would have the perfect piece of footage for a showreel. Something he could present to studio bosses to illustrate just how easy, cheap and fruitful it is to make gripping TV by simply following a police squad around. With that, Cops would surely be as good as made.
Without thinking through any of the practicalities, Langley told Geraldo he could help him with whatever he needed. They wanted to do a tag-along with police? No problem. They needed three staggered-but-synchronised busts to take place in three separate time zones? Fine. No sweat. The technology, the warrants, the permissions from the police departments? Leave it with Langley.
Of course, he had absolutely no idea if any of this would actually be possible. He just didn’t want to lose his chance. So alongside his regular producing partner, Malcolm Barbour, they took the job and toiled to sort out every last detail.
From a televisual point of view, the actual show could hardly have gone better.
Three units in Fort Lauderdale, San Jose and Houston were assigned a cameraman and a sound guy who ran with armed officers into suspected drug dens and captured the frantic commotion of the showdowns. The Fort Lauderdale bust in particular had some great visuals, with about 3 kilos of cocaine in huge bags getting held up for the camera.
Legally though, things were a little more murky. Once the credits had rolled and the dust had settled in San Jose, it turned out that one of the people who was shoved to the floor and handcuffed on live television was found to be entirely innocent. And it was even worse in Houston where a woman wrongly scooped up in the arrest (who Geraldo had alleged was a prostitute who plied truckers with speed) filed a lawsuit against the production company for $30million citing libel, defamation, invasion of privacy and emotional distress.
The critics’ reaction to American Vice was fairly damning too. Reviewers were quick to ask why Geraldo would take such glee in broadcasting the faces of crying children as their mothers were hauled off to prison; or why he was so condescending when confronting some truly desperate people. People who didn’t owe the watching public – much less Geraldo Rivera – any explanation for their life choices.
The LA Times ran a particularly damning review stating that Rivera was sensationalising an extremely serious and complex problem – turning the whole thing into garish spectacle and degrading the general culture in the process, calling it “journalusting repugnance”.
It’s a criticism that has continued to dog reality television throughout its evolution – but, really, who cares about that sort of thing? Audiences? Please. American Vice drew in 15 million viewers and became the fifth-highest rated syndicated special of its time.
Geraldo didn’t seem to care much about the ethical implications either, crying out in palpable relief on more than one occasion throughout the broadcast “I told you the vault would be full!”
And as for Langley? Langley had his footage. He had proof that Cops would work. All he needed now was a network that would finally take a punt on him.
Yet still, no-one would.
Around this time, in the mid-to-late 80s, there were three major television networks operating in America: ABC, CBS and NBC. Known as ‘The Big Three’, they had pretty much had a lock on what America had been watching since the late 1940s.
Two months before American Vice aired though, a new challenger entered the fray in an attempt to become a fourth major network. A ragtag little collection of television stations, assembled by 20th Century Fox – the film studio which had just been bought up by Rupert Murdoch’s NewsCorp.
On October 9th 1986, the Fox Broadcasting Company was launched.
Fox had a tough couple of years to start. Their first big show, The Late Show with Joan Rivers, opened to relatively decent ratings but quickly took a tumble. By May the following year it had been cancelled. Their next attempt at late-night, The Wilton North Report, fared even worse, getting cancelled after just four weeks.
There were some semi-successful attempts at primetime programming with The Tracey Ullman Show, Married… With Children and 21 Jump Street – but, even then, the viewing figures weren’t massive, which made it hard for Fox to secure good advertising and affiliate deals.
Then, to make these inauspicious beginnings even worse, eighteen months after Fox launched the Writers Guild of America announced that it was going on strike. That meant no new scripts for shows – be they sitcoms, family dramas, late night monologues – until the dispute was resolved.
The strike looked like it had the capacity to absolutely ruin the nascent Fox but, truthfully, it was in a better position than the other, larger networks. Fox had fewer viewers to lose. They had no real established remit yet, and people were quickly getting sick of the Big Three’s re-runs. So if they could somehow find a fresh new hit, they could actually play this strike to their advantage.
The man who found that hit? Steve Chao.
Chao had been working as a reporter for the trashy supermarket tabloid The National Enquirer when he first caught the eye of Rupert Murdoch. Chao was part of what was known as the Tabloid Triangle – a huge pool of showbiz journalists that had gravitated towards small-town Florida in the 70s and 80s where the celebrity magazine industry was having a boom moment.
Murdoch (who’d had a modest involvement in the industry himself with Star magazine) had decided to sell off his assets in the Triangle in order to focus on setting up Fox TV and pilfered Chao to head up programming.
Having cut his teeth on such a salacious scandal mag, Chao had a highly developed sense of what piqued the American public’s interest. He knew that they had a nosiness for the lives of others. The Enquirer in particular had made its name pandering to people’s morbid curiosity, knowing they’d always be drawn to death, drugs and disaster – so it made perfect sense he’d be the one to pick up Cops.
Before we credit him with too much in the way of vision here, we should say that like every other TV executive at the time even Chao had been dithering about picking up Langley’s concept initially. He was just the first to change his tune when the Writers’ Strike commenced.
As soon as he wasn’t being handed fresh scripts by his regular union writers, all the things that once seemed hugely problematic about Cops suddenly became rather neat solutions to the situation the network found itself in.
No voiceover meant no script. No script meant no scriptwriters. Unlike most of their primetime slate, Cops needed no storyboarding, no redrafting, no union writers at all. It was just filming real life – and, unless America somehow managed to purge itself of all crime ever, this was an idea that could run and run. Best of all for the fledgling Fox, it was cheap. It could be turned in for an estimated $200,000 an episode.
To put that figure into context: it was costing Fox’s biggest rival, NBC, about $1.25m to pick up each episode of Cheers around this time. Cheers‘ viewing figures meant that it would generate about $2.6m in advertising per episode (about $330,000 for each commercial broadcast in the time slot). Trying to replicate Cheers’ ratings was maybe wishful thinking, but it was less than a fifth of the cost so it had a good potential for profit.
Steve Chao was in. He greenlit the pilot, but the network bosses would still have to sign off before it would get a full series.
Langley was summoned to bring his pilot to a screening meeting with the CEO of Fox Broadcasting, Barry Diller. Though Diller and a few assembled execs said they enjoyed the show, they were left scratching their heads about it. Would it work as a series? There’s no star name attached to it. No voiceover to explain what was going on. What, do they just fill twenty half-hours with the same thing – cops busting bad guys over and over? Won’t it get a bit samey?
Until a voice from the back of the room said “Order four.”
When Diller told the guy who piped up to hush because he was thinking, Langely assumed it had been an accountant or some such, impertinently chiming in.
It wasn’t. It was Rupert Murdoch.
Finally, Langley had his series.
Cops was a huge hit. As part of Fox’s landmark 1989 line-up, the show is credited (along with The Simpsons, which debuted nine months later) with turning the fortunes of the ailing network around.
Thirty years and 1,000 episodes later, it is still on the air and one of the longest-running series in history.
Langley had shown that viewers were open to the idea of watching shows without hosts. He had proved that you didn’t need a snappy script or fancy camerawork to create an engaging story. And, most pleasing of all to the programming execs, he had made it clear that paying actors and writers was not a necessity.
This cheap, easy-to-replicate format would go on to be used in all manner of ways. And while there’s no doubt that Cops was an extremely influential show within TV commissioning circles, its influence isn’t confined simply to the schedules. It has leached out into the wider world too.
We’ll deal with this whole subject more fully in Part Three but, as one of the pioneering shows of its type (and one that deals with such a serious social issue as law and order), Cops has been studied extensively by academic researchers.
Their findings might not hugely surprise you, but they’re worth pointing out nevertheless. For example, one thing that studies have found is that people who watched the show tended to overestimate crime rates – specifically when it comes to violent crime.
It’s easy to see why that might be. There was never an episode which showed policemen driving around all day, pulling people over with faulty brake lights and ticking off jaywalkers. So viewers got the sense that police work is 24/7 drug deals, murder calls and high-speed pursuits.
That makes sense because – aside from possibly BBC Four – there isn’t a network on air that would ever dream of commissioning a show where two officers just sit in a car for a six-hour stakeout, silently monitoring motorway traffic. These shows need action. They need drama. They need a certain shock factor.
So who’s to blame for fueling this gap between reality and perception?
Was Langley irresponsible to show three explosive crimes a week, instead of producing a show that better reflected the actual reality of police work? Should he have insisted that every minute of high-octane crim-catching broadcast be balanced out by nine subsequent minutes of processing paperwork?
Or should viewers instinctively have known to treat the show as entertainment, treating it with a critical and sceptical eye?
Another study found that Cops had an influence on viewers’ perceptions of race and gender when it came to crime. Langley always claimed that he didn’t want to perpetuate any negative stereotypes about any particular demographic, and says he made conscious efforts to strike a balance in the edit between all sorts of crimes and criminals. Even despite that, the study’s analysis of sixteen episodes showed that black men were still disproportionately likely to be portrayed as offenders of violent crimes. Compounding the issue was that the majority of white characters on the show were law enforcement, and women were barely represented on screen at all.
Taken as a snapshot of the ‘reality’ of crime statistics, it’s pretty misleading. But making a show that accurately portrayed the full scope of criminal activity would be an incredibly complicated and costly operation. A network simply wouldn’t sign off on it when it’s so much easier to find and film street crime in poorer (therefore predominantly minority) neighbourhoods.
Cops also led people to overestimate the efficiency of the police, believing them to be much more effective in apprehending criminals than they actually are.
The show was never intended to be an exercise in PR for the police, but there were certain considerations that had to be made from a production perspective.
Because Langley’s team relied on having unrestricted access to police departments in order to film the show, they had to stay on the cops’ good side. None of the officers were being paid for their involvement in the show (paying them would provide an incentive them to create drama), but the departments’ patience and charity would soon be exhausted if episode after episode showed their officers bungling arrests and letting criminals slip through their fingers.
It’s also unsatisfying for an audience to watch missed opportunity after missed opportunity. So, for various reasons, Cops also gave an inaccurate image of the police’s success rate.
In isolation, the influence of any single show on the social climate is going to be fairly insignificant. Cops might have affected some highly susceptible people’s views on crime and punishment sufficiently to swing a few votes here or there – but 22 minutes a week of flashy entertainment is not going to bring about any fundamental sea change in society.
However, when this social influence is taken in concert with the industry influence that Cops had within TV commissioning, its effect becomes exponentially potent.
In the twenty years that followed Cops’ debut, a couple of interesting things happened.
Obviously, in a very broad sense, reality TV blossomed. Every major network picked up all manner of shows that replicated it and pushed the newly popular genre in a number of different directions: docu-soaps, game shows, ‘social experiments’.
As the number of digital channels increased and new online portals cropped up throughout the late 90s and early 2000s, producers and programming execs were keen to fill the rapidly expanding broadcast slots with whatever cost-effective material they could find.
In fact, reality TV would become so huge that by the the WGA went on strike again in 2007, one of the demands that it made was to bring reality TV ‘writing’ under its own remit and fold the ‘story producers’ into the union.
And the other thing of note? In the twenty years between 1988 and 2007, Fox would grow from its position of scrappy underdog fourth-rated network to become the most-watched network by 18-49 year olds – toppling the network which had reigned supreme at the time Fox started, NBC.
Return To The Scene Of The Crime
There’s one final thing you have to know about Cops.
Except for the hour-long season finale, the entire first season was filmed on location in Broward County, Florida.
If you’ve been following the news recently, the name may ring a bell. You’ve probably heard it in specific reference to Broward County Police Department too, because it’s the same police department that was called in to deal with Nikolas Cruz: the school shooter who killed 17 people and injured 14 others at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High last month.
Ever since then, the news cycle has returned again and again to the survivors of the shooting. Yet instead of it being outraged, grieving parents who are imploring politicians to step in and taken action, this time it’s the children. It is now kids who are agitating and forcing America’s national conversation on gun legislation – and they’re doing so in a way that hasn’t really ever been seen before.
That these two things both ended up happening in Broward County is pure coincidence.
That they happened thirty years apart isn’t.
The high-schoolers who are taking up this fight are a part of the first generation to have grown up with reality TV being a primary staple of their media diet. Not just with fly-on-the-wall shows like Keeping Up With The Kardashians, or talent shows like The X Factor. The tropes and tricks of reality TV are everywhere, including the news. (It’s no accident that Geraldo Rivera has ended up as a regular on – where else? – Fox.)
These kids are well versed in this. So much so that some of the more high-profile students – the Emma Gonzaleses, the David Hoggs, the Delaney Tarrs – have been targeted by certain conspiracy theorist, who accuse them of being suspiciously polished on camera, of being too articulate in their talking points, too effective in their messaging.
We’ll come back to this point in more detail in Part Four, but this is no coincidence either. The reason that they’re so polished on camera, the reason that they’re so good with soundbites is that these kids are a product of the culture that Cops ushered in.
And the reason they’re being so effective in fighting against the prevailing political climate – a climate that the establishment has been hopeless to tackle – is that the current American administration is also a product of exactly these same forces.
For in much the same way that Cops was the dominant cultural influence to rise from the ashes of the 1988 Writers Strike, the dominant cultural influence to rise from the 2007/08 Writers’ Strike?
President Deals himself, Donald Trump.