John Langley: The Godfather of Arresting Television
It took him years to get Cops on the air, but 25 years in, the show’s raw power and legacy live on
By Paige Albiniak -- Broadcasting & Cable, 1/28/2013 12:01:00 AM
Langley's first television project was a documentary called Cocaine Blues that he shot in 1981 with his then-production partner, Malcolm Barbour. One of the segments was a live drug raid. It was so exciting, Langley said, he thought "it would be interesting to do a whole show from this."
It took Langley seven years to convince anyone else of that. When he finally did, the resulting series changed the face of television. Cops preceded all the reality fare that dominates both broadcast and cable primetime today, but its extraordinary influence is hardly due to chronology. Cops introduced new techniques that today's reality shows employ constantly-like handheld cameras and no narration or music in the show-but Langley points out that it's still the only show of its kind.
"There's no other show with no host, no reenactments, that is just pure raw reality," he said. "And any show that looks like it's doing that is usually a highly managed show. There's nothing wrong with highly managed shows, but they aren't showing viewers reality."
It's that attention to the heart of nonfiction programming and a visionary's sense of pace and impact-worthy of a Brandon Tartikoff Legacy Award-that Langley's career exemplifies.
"Now a ubiquitous part of cable and broadcast network lineups, John was really one of the first to usher in this new genre of programming, featuring real-life characters displaying genuine emotion in outrageous situations," said Greg Meidel, president of Twentieth Television and MyNetwork TV. "Over 2,250 reality television series have launched since the premiere of Cops, many of which have a direct lineage to the unique style of storytelling that John had originally pioneered.
"No one else comes close to duplicating John's vision and accomplishing what he has done in the reality genre," Meidel added. "There have been poor attempts at replicating Cops, but nothing that has had the broad appeal that Cops has achieved."
That achievement took about as many turns as a classic cold case. Langley started pitching his truelife police idea around town in the early 1980s, but was turned down repeatedly. The closest he got to anyone taking on his idea was Tribune, where executives told him he had "a great idea, but we're not going to do it because we already have a deal with Geraldo Rivera," Langley recalled.
Langley started working with Rivera, producing several network and syndicated specials, including American Vice, Innocence Lost, Sons of Scarface, Devil Worship, Murder: Live From Death Row and Modern Love.
"Those projects gave us the credibility we needed with the networks," Langley said. "We tried to sell [Cops] to everybody, and every network on the planet turned it down."
Then, in 1988, something fateful happened: the writer's strike. While most of Hollywood suff ered and TV shows were dark, Langley found opportunity in the widespread work stoppage. "Along came Fox at the right time and the right place," he said.
Langley ended up pitching the idea to Stephen Chao, who at the time was a development executive at News Corp.'s new broadcast network, Fox, which was taking aim at the youth market with edgy fare.
"I pitched him every show you can imagine, and he said no to everything," Langley said of Chao. "Finally, he told me to come in and pitch one more time, and I said no. ‘You wouldn't know a good show if it slapped you in the face,' I told him. Of course that got him excited, so he demanded that I come back in and pitch him. I got in front of [Chao] and [then-Fox boss] Barry Diller, told them the idea one more time, and they told me to go do it."
That obstacle finally removed, Langley turned around to find another one right in his face: Police departments were extremely reluctant to participate.
"Police and media were perceived to be enemies at the time," he said. "Newspapers were interested in stories of malfeasance, and police departments wanted no part of it."
Langley did have one in, however. While doing the specials with Rivera, he had worked with Broward County, Fla., sheriff Nick Navarro. Langley said he told Navarro what he was doing, and Navarro said: "'Sure, come on down. Let the chips fall where they may, we have nothing to hide.'" Langley shot the pilot in Florida, and from there, the walls started to fall.
"We had a great critical response to the show because nothing like it had been on network TV before," Langley recalled. "That led to a lot of people tuning in, including police departments. Today, very few police departments have said no to us."
Nearly 25 years later, Cops is a television institution. It's Fox's longest-running series, with the 850th episode scheduled to air this year. Cops also has aired in syndication for the past 20 years, and a new version of the show-Cops Reloaded-is being recut to air in broadcast and cable syndication this fall.
Langley has since branched out into filmmaking and original cable production of programs he produces with his son Morgan, such as Vegas Strip, Las Vegas Jailhouse, Street Patrol and the upcoming Undercover Stings. "I never thought Cops would run 25 years, not even close," Langley said. "I was just hoping to get the show on the air."
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