John Langley, the reality television pioneer who created the long-running television series Cops, has died at the age of 78.
Considered one of the founding programs of the reality TV genre, Cops ran for 32 seasons, including a run on Fox from 1989 to 2013. Langley first had the idea to bring a cinema verite-style to law enforcement with his 1986 special American Vice: The Doping of a Nation, where host Geraldo Rivera accompanied police live on a narcotics bust.
“We orchestrated and arranged three live drug busts, which I’m sure will never happen again,” Langley said in an interview with the Television Academy. “We just yanked [the idea] out of the air.”
Three episodes of that show aired: While the bust in two of the cities — Houston and San Jose — came up empty, the raid in Broward County, Florida yielded several pounds of cocaine and numerous arrests. With the latter episode a hit, Langley developed the idea to bring police work to a nationwide audience on a weekly basis. Fox initially ordered four episodes as a test run; it ran for nearly 1,000 episodes and 25 seasons on the network.
Cops arrived on network television three years before The Real World premiered on MTV. The series proved so popular that its theme song — Inner Circle’s “Bad Boys” — reached Number Eight on the Billboard Hot 100 five years after the song’s release.
“I was a Bob Marley fan — still am — and I thought it would be very interesting to counterpoint law enforcement with reggae,” Langley told Entertainment Weekly in 2007. “I heard the song and I said, ‘That’s it. That’s the song for the show.’”
(“Thirty years. How many groups in the world can say they have a song that the world knows, but what is not understood is the essence of the song,” Inner Circle’s Ian Lewis told Rolling Stone in 2020. “It was used in the context of Cops, but if they listen to the song, everybody just knows the hook. They don’t listen to the words of the song where it’s talking about a person who was coming into crime and adversarial towards their parents.)
Throughout its run, Cops would be accused of exploiting its suspects. However, as Langley told the New York Times in 2007, “When they hear that we’re not a news camera, that we’re Cops, they generally exclaim, ‘Oh, that’s great! When will I be on?’”
After its lengthy reign on Fox, Cops would later air on Spike TV/Paramount Network for seven more seasons before the show was abruptly canceled in the aftermath of the killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor by law enforcement. Racial justice organization Color of Change tweeted of the cancellation, “‘Crime TV plays a significant role in advancing distorted representations of crime, justice, race & gender within culture & #Cops led the way, pushing troubling implications for generations of viewers.’”
By the time of Cops’ cancellation, the term “reality television” — the genre Langley helped create — had long been distorted by not-so-reality programming. While Langley never shied away from the criticisms against Cops, he defended the authenticity of his long-running series.
“You can be entertained by it, you can be disgusted, but it is what happened,” Langley told the New York Times. “It wasn’t staged, it wasn’t scripted. I didn’t put anyone on an island and tell them what to do.”