‘Cops’ owes longevity to strike talk

Series paved the way for today's reality craze

Nearly 20 years ago, as the threat of a strike loomed over Hollywood, the young Fox network took a chance on an unconventional docuseries called “Cops.”

Now, two decades later, the industry has changed extensively. For starters, that upstart Fox web is now No. 1 in key demos, and unscripted skeins aren’t such a novelty in primetime.

But some things aren’t all that different: The business is planning for another potentially crippling strike — and almost 700 episodes later, “Cops” is still on the air.

“In all honesty, I wish I had known — I could have planned my life better,” quips “Cops” co-creator and exec producer John Langley about the show’s longevity. “Frankly, if it had not been for the writers’ strike at the time, it wouldn’t be on. No one would have given it a chance.”

Indeed, “Cops” was turned down by several networks before Fox picked it up — first on its owned-and-operated stations, then quickly on the network itself. The show’s success spawned several copycats and countless parodies (which continue to this day, on shows like “My Name Is Earl”).

“John has the ability to tell great stories,” says MyNetworkTV prexy Greg Meidel, who recently launched Langley’s new show, “Jail,” to the weblet’s highest-ever ratings. “He knows where to find the right subject matter.”

A strong player for the network, “Cops” grew even bigger in syndication. Meidel says at first there weren’t a lot of believers that an off-net reality show could work in repeats.

“But it was an overnight success, and the ratings were huge,” he says.

So huge, as a matter of fact, that Langley (who dreamt up the show with former producing partner Malcolm Barbour) wound up suing News Corp. in one of the industry’s landmark profit participant cases. The matter was settled out of court.

“We had a misunderstanding, it got clarified,” a very diplomatic Langley says. “Fox is still our home.”

With so many episodes in the can, several different cycles of “Cops” have been sold to broadcast stations and cable webs that the ubiquitous theme song — Inner Circle’s “Bad Boys” — can be heard all over the tube several times a day. Langley chalks it up to the evergreen nature of the show. After all, a shirtless convict in 1988 looks the same as a shirtless convict in 2007.

“Uniforms don’t change, a cop car is a cop car and human behavior is human behavior,” Langley says.

Now, rather than sit back and count his profits (Meidel notes that both Fox and Langley have done well by “Cops”), Langley has jumpstarted his production company. Langley’s son Morgan — who was a teenager when “Cops” launched — has joined the family business, heading up development.

Morgan Langley was the driving force behind “Jail,” which also runs as “Inside American Jail” on Court TV. He’s also helping launch a documentary division, starting with a feature on the 2008 election.

“It’s a chance to do a historic documentary about an important election,” Morgan Langley says. “We’re now in the process of getting the access. It looks like we’ll be able to make the film we want to make.”

The Langleys are also in business with Chris Rock‘s brother Tony Rock on a reality improv show tentatively titled “Scaring Whitey.” And the company is dabbling with developing low-budget, one-hour dramas.

“There are a lot of other things we should be doing and can be doing well,” Morgan Langley says.

But Langley Prods. won’t stray too far from its core crime and punishment focus. The company next plans to tackle the justice system in the same vein as “Cops” and “Jail.”

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