‘Cops’ carries baton of change

Fox series re-wrote TV's Saturday strategy, established reality shows

Among its many accomplishments, the joke goes, “Cops” gave even the drunk and shirtless hope that they, too, could be on television.

The series’ significance, though, goes well beyond that, stretching past even the durability that has enabled the concept, which was launched in the Fox network’s infancy, to survive into its 25th season.

John Langley, the program’s principal architect, will be honored at this month’s NATPE convention with one of the Brandon Tartikoff Legacy Awards. As for the legacy of Langley’s signature creation, the show’s impact on the TV business can be divided into four key areas (limited to one word, mirroring the title’s economy):

Saturday. This might be the most subtle fallout from “Cops,” but from a business perspective, perhaps its most noteworthy. Paired with “America’s Most Wanted,” the program’s success on Saturday nights pointed toward a lower-cost programming model just as the major networks began to struggle to attract sought-after younger demos that night.

“The genuine innovation of ‘Cops’ was low-cost, high-rating programming,” Langley says, adding that the combination “maybe changed the (TV) landscape more than anything else.”

Before then, some of television’s highest-rated programs aired Saturdays. Series like “All in the Family” and “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” had anchored the night, and programmers weren’t bashful about scheduling top series there. Indeed, Tartikoff’s legacy collection, recently donated to USC, reveals a hand-scribbled schedule from the 1980s in which the legendary NBC programmer debated whether to slot action-adventure shows or a Steven Bochco-produced drama on Saturday.

Flash forward, and Saturday has become a dumping ground for sports and reruns (otherwise known as “Amortization Theater”), with broadcasters having essentially thrown in the towel. To what extent that became a self-fulfilling prophecy is open to debate; networks certainly grew less aggressive in attacking the night, fearing the coveted younger audience was simply unavailable. But “Cops” played a pivotal role in tilting the playing field.

Leverage. Fox picked up “Cops,” which originated through its stations division, against the backdrop of the 1988 Writers Guild of America strike. The program thus became symbolic of how the networks would come to use unscripted TV as a hedge against future work stoppages, and as leverage in future guild negotiations — “one of the unintended consequences” of its popularity, Langley concedes. “It was fortuitous timing for us reality people, and not so much for writers and actors,” he says.

Economics. While Langley draws a clear distinction between the cinema-verite style of “Cops” and those unscripted programs that fudge or fabricate reality, the show’s ability to compete at a considerably lower cost than scripted dramas helped unleash “a flurry, an avalanche, of so-called reality shows,” he notes.

Waivers. In its own way, “Cops” demonstrated a truth that would become increasingly important as reality TV shows proliferated and became more provocative — namely, people will sign waivers even under the most unpleasant or questionable of circumstances if the tradeoff is that they can be seen on TV.

Before the show premiered, Langley recalls, there was considerable doubt whether anybody would agree to have their image used in the context of being arrested. “The network thought it was a legal nightmare,” he says.

By the time “Cops” had been on a few years, though, that became almost a non-issue. In fact, one of the occasional logistical pitfalls involved people seeing the camera crews and beginning to hum the show’s “Bad Boys” theme, as they or someone else were being marched off to jail.

Of course, there are other aspects to the “Cops” story, ranging from the sociological (many objected to the class and racial messages conveyed by those who wound up in cuffs) to the impact cameras would have on law enforcement, and how officers behaved when they weren’t being filmed.

A thousand episodes later, Langley concedes he didn’t really anticipate “Cops’ ” wide footprint — helping kill Saturday, rewriting TV’s business model, or proving anyone could have 15 minutes of fame (or notoriety). “I had faith it was a great show,” he says.

As for the rest of the legacy, hey, whatcha gonna do?