It was arguably the first reality TV show. “COPS” (always spelled in all caps) arrived at the Fox Network in March of 1989, and has been staking out the tube ever since. Thousands of foot pursuits, car chases, bloody-nosed drunks, and bros getting tased have been presented to the American people. There can be nobody who hasn’t seen this show, or one of its many knock-offs and clones.
It turns out that this video gold mine was the product of a writers’ strike. The producers had been peddling the concept for some time with no takers, when, in 1988, a prolonged writers’ strike hit the TV industry. The COPS show required no writers, except maybe for the canned tag lines that the cops say at the end of every episode (which seemed to be written for them but required no writing talent.) Likewise, in finest reality TV fashion, this show required no actors and no directors. The cost savings were beyond impressive, and for the cherry on top, it was a new version of what TV networks had been ladling up since the days of Dragnet – a cop show! This one being a real cop show!
It filled a need, and not just for a network without writers. For a certain segment of the audience a special kind of psychological gratification comes from watching this show.
Everybody finds it fascinating at some level, although for some the novelty wears thin after a while. Others are hooked by the unpredictable nature of the show (listening to police scanners has been a niche hobby for generations.) But for still other people, the COPS show serves as weekly confirmation that there are loathsome, sinful, despicable and worthless people out there – and they’re all dirt poor.
The “suspects” are invariably at the rock bottom of the economic ladder. It’s always in some location on the wrong side of the tracks, or a broken-down trailer, or a transient motel. Sometimes the detainees are clearly mentally ill, or strung out on something probably stronger than reefer. Week after week, they are on display, the absolute dregs of humanity – the people who are the entire problem with our society. Everybody can feel a sense of superiority looking at these cretins.
White collar crime actually does much more damage every year, costs more money, and wrecks more lives than all the weed dealers, burglars and street walkers in the twenty three year run of COPS. It turns out that filmmaker Michael Moore had the same thoughts, and managed to ask one of the producers of COPS, Richard Herlan, about it. Herlan said that high level crimes aren’t prosecuted as frequently as the kind of street level law-breaking shown on COPS, so to have enough material for a weekly show they concentrate on the criminality of the poor. He also implied that street crime is more visually compelling than a raid of a banker’s office. It would be interesting to know if COPS has ever done even a single program on big time, corporate crime. Especially since that is a big part of what has wrecked the American economy. This is not to touch on the on-going acts of police malfeasance and brutality revealed on the show.
High level crime is out of sight and out of mind with a gigantic swath of the American population. Instead we watch videos of foot pursuits of low level street crooks – decade after decade after decade.