Bad Boys=Big Money

Cops has no stars, no plot and no contests, and it's a killer on TV

On a hot June day in Las Vegas, Metro Police Officer Ryan Cook patrols his beat as he normally would, but today he's the one under surveillance.

Cops associate producer John La Count points a camera at him from the passenger seat, while associate producer Hank Barr adjusts a microphone behind La Count. Suddenly, a call comes in that a man has threatened people with a gun.

Cook flips on his lights and sirens, and guns the car down side streets as La Count focuses the camera. Barr and La Count yell “Clear right!” or “Clear left!” as he shifts lanes. Suddenly, they spot the suspect's gold Mercedes off the Las Vegas Strip and direct it into a restaurant parking lot. Two patrol cars screech to a halt behind it.

The male suspect in the passenger seat won't respond to the shouts of five officers—all with guns drawn—to step out with hands up. After a long pause, he acquiesces. He's handcuffed and questioned, and everything is caught on the Cops cameras.

Says La Count, “I could tell on his face he just wanted it to end quickly.”

This scene is all in a day's work for Cops, Fox's feisty reality show that was a hit before the genre was cool. It has no stars, no plot and no contests, yet it is the network's longest continuously running series and one of the most successful and profitable shows on television today.

Now in its 17th season, the show has brought in an estimated $500 million from network, syndication, cable and DVD sales since its start, despite operating on a relative shoestring in the world of network television. While reality TV is constantly morphing to suit the changing tastes of fickle audiences, Cops long ago discovered a simple, enduring truth: Putting camera crews with police officers makes great TV.

To deliver those 22 minutes of footage to Fox each week requires that the Cops crew “be in the right place at the wrong time,” says co-creator John Langley.

Adrenaline Rush

Langley was in the right place in 1983, on location filming a show about the drug scene in South Florida called Cocaine Blues. While researching the project, Langley and his producing partner, Malcolm Barbour, went on a raid with drug-enforcement officers and were taken by the tension of pulling up at a scene and the unpredictable nature of what could—and often did—ensue. “Just the adrenaline rush of not knowing what would happen at any time,” Langley says. “It seemed a natural to do a TV show in the shoes of police officers.”

But as unknowns, Langley and Barbour failed to sell the Cops format to the networks. Then, after Tribune Entertainment matched them up with Geraldo Rivera for a series of crime-themed reality shows, they tried anew with pitches for Cops. One day, they hooked a young, virtually unknown Fox programming exec named Stephen Chao, who would later become president of Fox Television Stations and then USA Network (and is now a private investor in media and entertainment). Langley and Barbour pitched four shows, and Chao told them to pick one. They took Cops to Barry Diller, then CEO of the network.

The timing was right. A writer's guild strike was happening when they pitched this unscripted show in 1988. As they talked to Diller, Langley recalls, an “accountant-looking guy” was “sitting over in the corner.” When the pitch was over, the “accountant” suddenly said he wanted to see four episodes. It was News Corp. Chairman Rupert Murdoch.

Says Langley, “Who knew what Rupert Murdoch looked like back then?”

The show first aired on the seven Fox O&Os, premiering in January 1989. Shot in Broward County, Fla., the premiere featured a raid on a crack house and a sheriff's attending of an officer's funeral. “At the time, the network wasn't doing particularly well,” Chao says, “so they were a bit more desperate, I suppose, to take a chance on something.”

He says the original concept was to follow “the home lives of the characters, like a soap opera, like Melrose Place. It quickly became evident that it was just kind of artificial and didn't really work, so we canned it.”

From then on, the formula simplified: three separate segments with no narrator, scripts or music during the action. The show did well enough to warrant a network pickup, following the same path America's Most Wanted had taken.

A typical episode begins with an action scene to hook the viewer, often a trademark foot race in which the only soundtrack is the heavy breathing of the pursuing officer—and the crew.

These scenes make the job of a Cops crew member like few others in TV. “You just have to be mentally and physically ready for this job every day,” says La Count, a 13-year veteran who has the name of the show tattooed on his right bicep. “You can be in the car chatting and, literally the next thing you know, you may be fighting for your life or in a situation that is going bad. If you're not focused, it can get away from you.”

Barr and La Count recall the time in 1994 in Los Angeles when their vehicle rolled up on a seemingly routine traffic stop. “We were just getting out, and bullets started whizzing by my head,” says Barr, a 17-year veteran of the show. “John and I were wrestling to pull each other into that little back seat.”

The Sensitive Segment

The second scene of a show is usually more emotional or humorous, and the comedy that often results from dealing with society's underbelly is a big part of the allure of Cops. A favorite of the crew is the time a man desperately pleaded with an officer that he was innocent of a drug accusation—all the time with a joint nestled over his ear.

“The chases all run together when you look back, but people remember the funny stuff or the real sensitive stories,” says Barr. The sensitive stories tend to run in the third segment. In 1989, for example, he accompanied officers responding to a call that a child was running around unsupervised in a low-income housing complex in Portland, Ore. They found the child and took him home, only to discover a single father of three sitting in a run-down apartment with an empty refrigerator.

The man had been emotionally rocked by the very recent death of his wife. “He was a good guy,” Barr recalls. “He just needed some help.” Barr filmed the officers going to a neighborhood store to get the kids some food before social services arrived to assist. “I know it was a bit hokey,” he says, “but it feels good to help a guy.” And viewers often connect.

Keeping that format intact, the show grew its audience through the early years, peaking on the network in 1992-93, when it averaged just under 14 million viewers. The syndicated version, which is averaging 4.8 million viewers per day nationally this year, is sold on a cash-plus-barter arrangement. Court TV airs it every evening. FX uses it more sporadically yet still averages around 1 million viewers, just off the network's average audience of 1.2 million. Even a Feb. 19 VH1 special on Cops attracted 1 million, a 50% increase over the network's regular audience at that time.

In 1994, the show began its syndication run, which partially explains a subsequent drop-off in network ratings. (Syndication debuts historically hurt network ratings.) But the show's popularity was booming—as was its profitability.

Industry sources estimate that the show has pulled in more than $200 million over the length of its syndication run, which is still going strong. Also over that time, network fees have grown to more than $650,000 per episode, from about $200,000.

Costs remain relatively minuscule. “We had the lowest license fee in network TV for many years and may still today for the Big Four networks,” Langley says. “But the syndication—that made us a little money, obviously. My kids got through college.”

Aside from becoming a cult hit on television, the Cops franchise has been a winner in home-video sales. In 1995, Langley and Barbour formed Real Entertainment, a company focusing on direct-response sales of a trilogy of videos of Cops footage unfit for broadcast. They took the videos to retail, and sales again skyrocketed. A second trilogy released last year sold more than 1 million units. The show has also been licensed internationally through Fox and is seen in 40 other countries, although the format has been copied often. Langley is currently looking at a videogame and “best-of” DVDs for each year of the show.

After another strong season in 2004-05, the show has already been renewed for an 18th season on Fox. It still consistently wins its Saturday time slots, even with an 8 p.m. original episode and an 8:30 repeat. “For Fox to be paying that little for a show that wins its time slot and then repeats so well is still a steal,” says one industry executive familiar with Fox's deal.

On the advertising side, Cops attracts about $60,000 for a 30-second spot, a rate that has remained flat in recent years. And while the content keeps certain advertisers away, many blue-chip advertisers are happy to take advantage of the young demo it delivers. Among them: Procter & Gamble, Unilever, Pfizer and Taco Bell.

Recruiting Tool

For one 30-minute show each week, Cops may have 10 two-person crews in three cities. With each duo working 40 hours a week, that means crews are with officers a total of 400 hours to produce 22 minutes of television weekly for as many as 36 weeks. And while filming has taken place in more than 140 cities, there are still cities in which they have never been welcome. In Honolulu and Chicago, for example, the producers have been turned down enough that they stopped asking. Says Chicago Police Department Deputy Director of News Affairs Patrick Camden, “Police work is not entertainment. What they do trivializes policing. We've never seriously even thought about it.”

Most police departments, which reserve the right to screen the video before it is aired, say the show serves as a recruiting tool. Las Vegas Metro's Cook says seeing the Cops episodes from Vegas made him eager to transfer from his former law-enforcement job in Cook County, Ill. But even in his own precinct, not all fellow officers like the idea. When Cook asked a sheriff why she doesn't allow a crew to drive along, she snapped, “Because I have to do police work.”

Langley isn't worried about finding enough cops. “As long as there is an appetite for the show,” he says, “we'll try to supply the goods. I would genuinely like to see Cops hit 20 years.”