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Cops on TV: Inside the making of 'COPS,' the longest-running reality show in TV history

Behind the scenes during production of an episode of
Behind the scenes during production of an episode of "COPS."
Behind the scenes during production of an episode of
COPS creator/executive producer John Langley and his son, Morgan, who is also an executive producer on the show.
Courtesy Langley Productions
Behind the scenes during production of an episode of
A "COPS" crew with a deputy from the Lee County Sheriff's Department in Florida.
Courtesy COPS
Behind the scenes during production of an episode of
The "COPS" logo has helped brand the show for 29 seasons.
Spike TV

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This segment is part of The Frame's #CopsOnTV series about how police are portrayed in both scripted and unscripted television, and how TV can impact the public’s perception of law enforcement. Listen to our other segments on this topic here.

In the age of the cell phone video and body camera, we’ve seen a lot of footage of police officers at their best and, often, their worst. That has surely affected the public’s image of police and law enforcement.

For decades, our understanding of police was partially shaped by scripted TV shows — many of which were among the most popular and critically-acclaimed shows of their time.

Last week, we spoke with former producers for the series “Law & Order: SVU” and “Southland.” Today we switch gears and speak with the executive producers of "COPS," the father-son team of John and Morgan Langley. 

Video: Cops

Few shows have influenced the public's perception of police offers more than their reality TV show.

Created in 1989 by John Langley and Malcolm Barbour, "COPS" became highly influential for its unscripted, non-narrated format. The Langleys spoke with The Frame producer Michelle Lanz, and she started by asking them how the show got started, and to explain its continuing success, 29 seasons later.

Interview Highlights:

On the origin of the show

JOHN: Nobody was willing to buy it. I went to every network on the planet trying to sell it. I got the same objections: You can't have a show with no narrator; you can't have a show without re-creations; you can't have a show without music in the body of the show; you can't have a show that isn't scripted or managed reality in some way, shape or form. I kept saying, No, no, no -- meaning Yes, yes, yes — you can! And nobody really wanted to do it until along came Fox.

MORGAN: The writer's strike was the thing.

JOHN: The writer's strike suddenly made a show with no scripts [and] no actors very appealing. And no host, because the Screen Actors Guild was going to go on strike in sympathy with the writers. That's why "COPS" happened, basically. There was a young arrogant pup named Stephen Chao, a young executive at Fox, who finally agreed to take me in to see Barry Diller, who was the head of Fox at the time. When I met with Mr. Diller, he said, Well, you need a narrator. I said, No — that's not the show. [He said], You need some re-creation. I said, No, that's not the show. I was sick and tired of trying to sell the show to everybody and having them all tell me no. So I decided to say no back to them. At the end of this exercise, he said, Okay, we'll do a pilot. I was a little shocked. We left the office and Steve Chao said, It's a good thing you told him no a lot, because otherwise he would have thought you were just prostituting out your talent and you were willing to do anything. It turned out alright because we did a pilot ... and then, yeah, nearly 30 years. So who knew? I was asked many times by crew and family, including Morgan, Is that show gonna be on again, Dad? I said, Heck if I know. I had no idea, honestly.

On how the show has developed

JOHN: I can address the early days of the show: We had three-to-five teams concentrating in one city. 

MORGAN: Now it's "COPS" coast-to-coast. It's really become a road show. You get to see different geographic areas of the country, even different law enforcement cultures. That's part of the reason why people watch. Nowadays, we have over 10 crews spread across the country in different locations. Sometimes as many as 13 crews. They're very lean-and-mean production teams. Our shooters are essentially story producers. So they're trying to get the goods and get us those raw seven-minute stories that we cobble together into a half-hour. "COPS" has less cuts than any show in the history of network TV. The ideal "COPS" segment is a continuous handheld take for seven minutes. All of our guys know that very well. So that's really as raw and real as you can get on television. I think that's what still makes it compelling to this day. We want less cuts.

JOHN: Yeah, that's the mantra: The best edit is no edit.

On the format of the show

JOHN: You have an opening act. That's what I call the action act, and that's to grip an audience — to get their attention. Then we go to a slower, more lyrical act, if you will, which involves more emotion. Then, the third act I try to make as something thought-provoking. You wouldn't think about it watching the show. You wouldn't even think in those terms, but that is essentially what I've always tried to do for various obvious reasons — grab the attention of the audience, then slow the pace down, let them become involved in the emotional content of the show, and then the third act is to take them somewhere else and make them consider the laws, actions or human behavior or psychology or the sociological elements of cops. 

Look, anybody who watches the show on a very superficial level will think it's entertaining or it's exploitive, or whatever they may think given their political or philosophic stance. I can assure you that we don't tell cops what to do. We don't make the shows in that sense. We record, observe and collect, and hopefully don't interfere too much. The more we can be the fly on the wall and capture pure reality, the happier I am.

What we often capture is not necessarily endorsed by us. That's not our job. Our job is not to try to convince anybody of anything, we're just showing what cops do, hopefully in the most transparent way possible. I'm often asked, Well, surely you cater to the police departments? Well, we cater in the sense that we have them approve of what we air before it airs, because we're guests and sometimes there are very basic issues involved. If it involves undercover police officers, you can't reveal their identity.

Everybody forgets that cops, the police officers, are required to do social services, deal with mental health issues, deal with family squabbles. None of these things have a lot to do with law enforcement. They're called upon to do a lot of services that they're not always equipped to handle. You need psychiatrists out there half the time, not police officers. You want them out there to stop violent criminals and real criminal activity. You don't want them to be your mental healthcare servants. That's not their jobs, but they're forced to do that. 

On what it takes to be a "COPS" cameraman 

MORGAN: Generally, those guys come out of a news background. A lot of them are used to being responsible for their own material and producing packages on their own, so they can make the transition. If you're a camera operator on "COPS" you don't have a producer telling you, Shoot this, shoot that, do this, do that. It's very different from the way a lot of shows are shot, so it takes a certain kind of person to be able to do that. Our guys are some of the best hand-held camera operators in the business.

Because it's "COPS," we'll have camera guys who come from all areas of the business, from reality TV — even from feature films who just want to do a season of "COPS" so they can say, I did "COPS"— it's on my resume. We've seen situations where guys — really great [directors of photography] or people from other disciplines — who come in and they cannot shoot "COPS." It's a different animal from anything on television. It's a way different animals from feature films. It's really an art that they learn over time. Some of them obviously take to it faster than others.

JOHN: It's also an emotional and psychological grind. You're gonna see the underbelly of society. You're going to see the worst of human behavior. You're gonna see all kinds of things from homicides to ... I mean, horrible things are encountered on a daily basis that you just don't see and don't even hear about because they're not newsworthy or news-making items. But there are a lot of human trails and tribulations and tragedies that happen on a daily basis that the police deal with, but that we don't have to deal with. We meaning the average citizen sitting and watching television.

On the death of "COPS" sound supervisor, Bryce Dion

JOHN: It altered our awareness of something I had never thought would have happened. If I had known it would have happened, I wouldn't have done "COPS." First of all, we're crews not cops. We don't carry guns, we don't get involved in shootouts, we don't do any of that kind of thing, but it shows the danger of the job because one of our crew members, Bryce Dion — who was the greatest kid in the world and the most talented and the most observant and the most diligent —  was killed in an armed robbery. It was tragic on multiple levels, but it also brought home the unfortunate truth of the danger of police work.

We went 27 seasons without any major injuries of any kind. Maybe that lured us into a false sense of security, because we've seen everything that most police officers see and probably more that most police officers see in their careers. We've been with multiple departments and been in multiple situations — from armed robberies to homicides to violent domestics to everything you can think of. Again, as the observers, you somehow think that camera protects you from the dangerous reality of where you may find yourself. It clearly doesn't and it's something that, to this day, bothers me personally. 

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