Whatcha Gonna Do When Sheriff John Brown Comes for You?

The opening lines of that song have been played on TV at least 1,500 times, every Saturday for the last 28 years. The reggae beat of its distinctive theme song, Inner Circle’s “Bad Boys”, is well known to us now, and will continue to be: Season 30 began taping in February this year.

“COPS” began its run on the Fox Broadcast Network on March 11, 1989. The network had just launched a few years prior, in October 1986. It took a chance on “COPS” after other major networks passed on it, jumping on the opportunity in the middle of a five month-long strike by the Writers Guild of America. The strike had crippled TV production in the summer of 1988. A reality-based show that required no writers and was inexpensive to produce was a perfect recipe for the new network.

But “COPS” did more than fill a hole in in the new network’s schedule. It surprised the TV industry by becoming not only a major hit, but one with longevity. It is now one of the longest-running TV shows in history, with more than 1,000 episodes aired since 1989. Its success gave rise to a new genre of reality programming that grew by leaps and bounds in the 1990s to become a cultural phenomenon by the next decade. And, like any anchor of popular culture, “COPS” has inspired plenty of imitators, most notably Comedy Central’s  “Reno 911!”

Created by producers John Langley and Malcolm Barbour, “COPS” cameras and production teams ride in police cars with real officers as they try to catch perpetrators of various drug-related crimes. The pilot episode, and most of the first season, was based in Broward County, Florida, and ride-alongs were with the Broward County Sheriff’s Office. Actor Burt Lancaster provided the voice-over for the pilot episode, but the rest of the episodes were shot documentary-style, unaccompanied by narration.

“COPS” is a relatively inexpensive program to produce, estimated at just $200,000 per episode. For comparison, a 30-minute sitcom costs on average between $1.5M and $3M per episode, with the variation largely dependent on talent costs. There are no writers, and most of the people on air, the alleged felons, are not paid. But are they all willing to be on TV?

Said producer Morgan Langley, “It’s the Andy Warhol thing: Everybody wants their 15 minutes of fame. People sign up and they sign up enthusiastically.” Producer John Langley said: “We have people that say, Get that news camera away from me! We say, We’re not with the news, we’re the ‘COPS’ TV show. They go, Oh! Cool! My cousin was on the show last season. I’m not kidding you. That has happened on many occasions.”

The camera crew that follows the officers are supposed to play a fly-on-the wall role, interfering only if necessary for the safety of others. However, there have been a few instances where the behind the scenes man becomes the story. For example, in one episode, the sound mixer, a former EMT, performed CPR.

“COPS” has followed officers in 140 different US cities, and abroad in London, Russia, and Hong Kong. Langley said in an interview that only two US Police Departments have not allowed the “COPS” crew to shoot footage. One is Honolulu – the Hawaiian visitors bureau would not allow it, due to concerns about the show hurting tourism.

There is an adage that crime does not pay. The creators of “COPS” may have a slightly different angle on that: this side of crime does indeed pay. In 2005, Broadcasting and Cable magazine estimated that Cops had generated $500 million in 17 seasons, between syndication, licensing, and DVD sales for the low cost and long running series.


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