The 'Cops' Effect
When ''Cops'' premiered March 11, 1989, on Fox, the gritty crime series put the bad boys of the world on notice — and spawned a whole new genre of reality TV.
Cops (1989 — present, Fox)
Cops creator John Langley wasn’t the first person to bring cinema vérité to network TV, but he was the first to popularize it. When the show — which still averages 5.1 million viewers — debuted in 1989, audiences had never seen anything like it. Was its depiction of everything from DUIs to coke busts ”absolutely captivating,” as one critic put it, or was it exploitative? The debate let Langley know he’d succeeded in presenting police work from a raw point of view. The series’ success helped put fledgling Fox on the map and showed other networks that viewers like to watch real people in dangerous situations. ”People say I’m the father of reality TV. I refuse to take credit for some of the bastards that followed,” Langley jokes. Here’s a brief study of some of the series Cops begat.
Cheaters (2000 — present, syndicated)
These offenders don’t face jail time, but when caught by the Cheaters Detective Agency, they can become as unruly — and creative — as any perp. ”She’s my therapist. She’s helping me work on intimacy issues,” said one leather-masked husband.
Trauma: Life in the E.R. (1996 — 2002, TLC)
Cops can be tough to watch; the reality of what doctors and nurses face in trauma centers is excruciating. Thanks to Trauma repeats on Discovery Fit & Health, viewers are hiding their eyes nearly a decade later.
Dog The Bounty Hunter (2004 — present, A&E)
Perhaps the only person who loves the words ”We’ve got a runner” more than a Cops fan is Duane ”Dog” Chapman, who lets cameras tail him as he and his family/posse chase fugitives with a large amount of force — and hair product.
Steven Seagal Lawman (2009 — present, A&E)
Deputy Seagal, who joins forces with Arizona’s controversial Sheriff Joe Arpaio in the upcoming third season, brings real celebrity to the badge genre and a new form of suspense: Will the suspect ask for an autograph? (Answer: frequently.)
Deadliest Catch (2005 — present, Discovery)
Like COPS, the reigning champ of the dangerous-job genre presents ordinary men doing extraordinary things (in this case, crab fishing in monster waves). Also shared: the need for fearless cameramen with good instincts and a reliance on natural sound (and bleeps).
Animal Cops (2002 — 10, Animal Planet)
The title of this Cops takeoff — which has seen incarnations in eight cities — understandably makes Langley laugh. Still, the rescue of sick and abused animals (or a cat stuck in a car engine) is serious business and packs a hefty emotional punch.