'Cops' Show Canceled Amid Worldwide Protests Against Police Violence

Jun 10, 2020
Originally published on June 10, 2020 12:54 pm

Since 1989, Cops has made riveting television from verité footage of arrests and emergency calls — often capturing scenes of police interacting with clueless suspects — filmed by riding along with police officers.

But the long-running unscripted show has been canceled after 32 seasons. The Paramount Network dropped it amid widespread protests nationwide about policing.

The show's 33rd season was scheduled to debut next Monday.

The Paramount Network issued a terse statement Tuesday, saying, "Cops is not on the Paramount Network and we don't have any current or future plans for it to return."

The series ends as protests following George Floyd's killing by Minneapolis officers have motivated a fresh look at how shows like Cops boost the image of police.

Floyd's death launched a debate over systemic prejudice in mass culture. HBO Max decided to pull the classic film Gone With The Wind from its library over racist depictions in its story until the company crafts a way to include context and a denunciation of its racism to accompany the movie.

Cops is one of the first examples of unscripted, so-called "reality TV." It debuted in 1989 on the then-new Fox network, before CBS' Survivor or MTV's The Real World. It was a low-cost production embedding camera crews with police as they answered calls, promising a transparent, authentic look at policing.

But critics noted troubling issues. Despite a disclaimer at each episode's start saying the people depicted were "innocent before proven guilty in a court of law," the footage often suggested otherwise, with the show rarely following up to find out if the charges were ever proven.

There was always the suspicion that the very presence of cameras might encourage officers to arrest or detain people to create exciting footage. Episodes could seem like a cavalcade of working class people caught in degrading situations, sometimes connected to addiction issues, encouraging viewers to look down on suspects.

A podcast dissecting Cops, called Running From Cops, alleged that some officers unfairly pressured suspects to allow the show to broadcast their arrest and that some camera people were armed and overtly helped police. In one episode of the podcast, Host Dan Taberksi says that before cellphone videos, Cops was "the dominant cultural depiction of how real policing works in America."

Shows similar to Cops have also faced controversy: Live PD is connected to an incident in Texas where a black man died after he was shot with a stun-gun during a traffic stop while the program's cameras were rolling.

Still, Live PD is one of the most-watched shows on cable; a spokesman for A&E says the channel is evaluating when it may return.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

It's got one of the most recognizable theme songs on TV.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BAD BOYS")

INNER CIRCLE: (Singing) Bad boys, bad boys, watcha gonna do? Watcha gonna do when they come for you? Bad boys, bad boys...

MARTIN: But the long-running, unscripted show "Cops" has been canceled after 32 seasons. The Paramount Network dropped the show amid widespread protests nationwide about policing. NPR TV critic Eric Deggans has details.

ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: Since 1989, "Cops" has made riveting television from verite footage of arrests and emergency calls filmed by riding along with police officers. They often capture scenes of cops interacting with clueless suspects like this.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "COPS")

UNIDENTIFIED OFFICER: Do you know your date of birth? OK, '86. So how old are you?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: I'm 32.

UNIDENTIFIED OFFICER: OK. If you were born in '86, you'd be 30.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: I'd be 30? I could've sworn I turned 32.

UNIDENTIFIED OFFICER: So just be honest with me.

DEGGANS: The show's 33rd season was scheduled to debut Monday. But the Paramount Network pulled episodes of the show. The cable channel issued a terse statement Tuesday saying, quote, "Cops is not on the Paramount Network and we don't have any current or future plans for it to return." "Cops" is one of the first examples of unscripted, so-called reality TV. It debuted before CBS' "Survivor" or MTV's "The Real World."

But the series ends as protests following George Floyd's killing by Minneapolis officers have motivated a fresh look at how shows like "Cops" boost the image of police. A podcast dissecting the series called "Running From COPS" alleged that some officers unfairly pressured suspects to allow the show to broadcast their arrest and that some camera people were armed and overtly helped police. Host Dan Taberski says in one episode that before cellphone video, "Cops" was quote, "the dominant cultural depiction of how real policing works in America."

DAN TABERSKI: They figured out that if a TV show works with the police instead of against them, you get amazing footage and riveting television. And in turn, the police get portrayed the way they want to be portrayed.

DEGGANS: A similar show called "Live PD" is one of the most watched shows on cable. And it has been pulled off the A&E channel. A spokesman for A&E says it is not likely to come back this week. And the channel is evaluating when it may return.

Eric Deggans, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BAD BOYS")

INNER CIRCLE: (Singing) Nobody not give you no break. Police... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.