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If you’ve been flipping through channels on a Friday or Saturday night, you may have wandered upon A&E’s Live PD, which plays like a live version of Fox’s long-running Cops for the digital age.
Dan Cesareo and his Big Fish Entertainment take their cameras into U.S. police departments, capture law-enforcement officers as they go about their business, then edit the footage on the fly and air it in blocks.
It’s been so popular — Live PD on A&E is currently cable’s top show on Friday and Saturday nights among adults 25-54 — that the network added hours and episodes to season one. Lifetime is debuting a spinoff, Live PD: Women on Patrol, June 18. Next up for Big Fish: A live-action version of Angry Birds that features a super-size obstacle course and a human slingshot.
Cesareo talked to B&C contributor Paige Albiniak about the unscripted environment, the growing appeal of live reality programming (with its social media engagement) to cable networks and Live PD’s challenges. An edited transcript follows.
What’s your take on the current unscripted TV environment? It’s a lot of legacy franchises and projects that reveal how programmers have gotten very safe. The genre exploded when all these network groups kept adding channels and they needed programming at a price point that made sense. If you look at where we are as an industry, it’s suffering from that rapid growth. The challenge from the programming side is, how do you create something that breaks through that clutter and captures viewers’ attention?
What led you to create Live PD? I came across an article about police departments live-tweeting on patrol and connecting with their communities on what they were facing in real time on a nightly basis. Law enforcement is a hot-button topic and police departments across the country are wrestling over the issue of, how do we make it better? I wondered, if they are live-tweeting, would they let us live-broadcast [and] take everyone in America on a virtual ride-along? It took us about a year to develop the show. … I think the departments that were confident enough to agree to allow our cameras in initially looked at the world and [thought], ‘We believe in our officers and we’re not afraid to let the public see what they face on a nightly basis.’ That’s what you see in the show.
How hard was it to convince more departments to participate? Once we got on the air, it was easier. It’s much easier when you can point to a show and people understand what it looks like and how it feels. The public opinion in these communities has changed dramatically. There’s a tremendous upside. We follow eight departments on a nightly basis and we’ve been in 32 departments since the series started in October 2016. We show a cross-section of departments across America.
How do fans interact with the show in terms of social engagement? I’ve never seen a fan base this passionate. We believe we average 20,000 tweets an episode and 100,000 social interactions an episode. Over the last year, we’ve added a handful of features. Via our ‘most wanted’ segment, we’ve captured 11 suspects; we’ve also added a missing-persons segment. The fan base and community has dubbed itself ‘Live PD Nation.’ They’ve tweeted at departments when they catch things we don’t see, like suspects throwing stuff out the window or stuffing things in their mouths.
What’s next for Big Fish? We don’t want to be the company that only does ‘X.’ Last year we did 270 hours of live TV and are in various stages of development on a few other live projects. Most recently, we partnered with Rovio Entertainment to take out a live-action game show version of Angry Birds. It’s about finding fun and provocative concepts.