Bad boys, bad boys"¦whatcha gonna do? If the ratings can be taken as an indicator, TV viewers love to see drunken trailer park residents beat up on their relatives. This week our TVHolic looks at that weekly guilty pleasure, COPS.
1. It all started with a Documentary
COPS is the brainchild of writer/producer John Langley. In 1983 Langley was working with Malcolm Barbour on a documentary called Cocaine Blues, which was a graphic depiction of the effect of the so-called upscale drug on the average American. While researching Cocaine Blues Langley was on the scene during several drug raids, and it occurred to him that the logistics, preparation and execution of such police work from the cop's point of view might make for an interesting television series.
2. Geraldo was an Influence (sort of)
Langley worked with Geraldo Rivera on a two-hour special entitled American Vice, which again focused on the War on Drugs and followed various law enforcement agencies on the job. Equipped with not only a concept but also a working knowledge of what would be involved (a physically fit camera crew that could keep up with police officers while carrying unwieldy equipment), he began pitching his new show idea to the networks. He was met with every reaction from disdain to outright incredulity. You can't have a TV show without at the very least a narrator, he was informed. No one will agree to appear on-camera, we'll get our (posteriors) sued from here "˜til doomsday, said several execs. It was all a matter of timing when Langley finally hit pay dirt in 1989. The Fox Network was in its infancy and was looking for unusual, "edgy" programming in order to set itself apart from the Big Three networks. Langley had done his homework and had figured out the necessary technology "“ the action could be filmed live using microwave technology and bouncing signals up to helicopters and back down to trucks. Fox was impressed by his pitch and ordered 45 episodes.
3. Will your city get picked?
The COPS crew doesn't just show up at a random police precinct; they only film on location when they're invited by either a city's mayor, police chief or other official. Upon receiving such an invite, the producers of the show meet with the local law enforcement officials and then ride on patrol for several different shifts to see if the area meets the "production needs" of the show. (Translation: there must be some sort of criminal action worth filming. There have been several occasions when the crew spent three or four days riding with the local constables only to find that the biggest crimes in town were parking infractions.) Once an area is deemed suitable for filming, all the proper contracts are signed, and a two-man COPS crew rides in each police car. In one-person cars, the camera operator rides shotgun while the sound mixer sits in the back seat. In two-officer cars, both crew members sit in the back. They both wear ballistic resistant vests while on the job. Surprisingly, the only major injuries suffered by COPS crew members in 20 years of filming have been slipping and falling while running through back yards in the dark, and being hit by flying objects when filming an angry crowd.
4. Why There are Fewer Blurry Faces
In the early days of the series, many of the perp's faces were blurred. Folks were unfamiliar with the show and were wary of appearing on camera. However, once COPS became a hit, over 90% of the arrestees signed release forms. Even though their initial reaction might have been "Get those cameras out of my face," once they found out that the footage was for COPS, they willingly agreed to be on TV. Producer Langley shrugs and figures it must have something to do with that "15 minutes of fame" thing. Interestingly enough, "blurring" is time consuming and expensive in post-production, so in later seasons of the show, a lot of perps who refuse to sign the waiver never get on camera.
5. When the Crew Gets Involved
Once in a great while, members of the COPS crew break that fourth wall and get involved with the situation at hand. In one episode a victim was unconscious and not breathing, and paramedics hadn't yet arrived. The COPS sound mixer happened to be a former EMT and he assisted the attending police officer in providing CPR. On another occasion, the police officer that had been in foot pursuit of a suspect was injured, and the camera operator (who was a Las Vegas Reserve Police Officer) handed off his equipment to the sound mixer and assisted the officer in tackling the suspect.
I'd love to hear about your favorite COPS memories or moments. I'll wait a moment while you don your wife-beater undershirt and light up a Lucky Strike.