A car is upside down, rocking back and forth on its hood, as a police car, its lights flashing, pulls up, ending a 90 mph chase. The driver crawls out of the window with his two-year-old child. She’s visible first as a pair of legs flying through the air as the man flings her while trying to scramble away from the approaching officer.
The police officer’s cries of “Get down on the ground!” change to “That’s your baby! That’s your baby!” as the man, who’s 22, tries to fight off the cop, holding the child the whole time, thrashing her around. Eventually the officer gets the man, and the baby, onto the ground. Once he’s away from his daughter, it takes several cops several minutes to restrain him.
During all of this, two-year-old’s arm was broken.
And on July 8, people were watching all of it live on TV, thanks to A&E’s Live PD.
The show debuted last October and has grown since then, both in ratings and size; it now takes up six hours across Friday and now Saturday nights. In a July press release, A&E said the show had grown 152 percent in total viewers when it reached a then-high 2.1 million viewers, making A&E number one among people 18 to 49, on all of television.
The network ordered more episodes, for a total of 142, meaning the show will continue into 2018. (The format’s success led Lifetime to order and air Date Night Live, which is also produced by Big Fish Entertainment.)
A&E’s programming executive Elaine Frontain Bryant said in a press release that the show “is also bold in nature” and insisted it “[presents] an unfiltered look at how our country is being policed.” She was thrilled: “we’ve tapped into the cultural zeitgeist in a way that no other show has before.”
It’s not just think-piece writers who are disturbed. The Bridgeport, Conn., police department stopped participating last December, and The Connecticut Post reported that the city said in a statement that “the show certainly had its merits and showed the true heroism and professionalism” but said “Mayor Ganim had serious concerns … the program was giving Bridgeport an inaccurate national reputation; inflating the prevalence of crime.”
The Tulsa Police Department cancelled its contract early this year. Tulsa’s mayor said “I’m not a fan,” while the police chief told The Frontier “We just didn’t like the way it represented Tulsa and the police department.”
Is it possible for a live show to represent something incorrectly? Is Live PD transparency just unfiltered reality? Or does it present a distorted version of events?
To answer questions that have been raised about the show, and about how it’s produced, I talked to Dan Cesareo, the show’s executive producer and the founder and president of Big Fish Entertainment.
Live PD needed time to refine its ‘massive juggling act’
Producing Live PD is a challenge for its producers, and has been from the beginning. There’s “126 minutes of content to fill and there’s no roadmap, there’s no rundown,” Cesareo told me. “We don’t know where we’re going and when we’re going there.”
Since its October debut, “the show has been refined tremendously,” he said. “When you forge new territory and when you try something completely out of the box and new, there’s a steep learning curve. Those first couple weeks were a little bumpy.”
Among the things that producers had to figure out were “pacing, and when you leave a story, and when you come back. How do you create that rhythm? There’s no model out there for it,” he said. “We were doing something that nobody had ever done before. We had 30+ feeds coming in to the studio; it’s this massive juggling act.”
Another challenge: A general lack of promotion for a new show that wasn’t airing in a timeslot where viewers were used to seeing new shows. “The American public found it,” Cesareo said, even though “there was very little off-air promotion for it,” and even though it aired on Fridays, “a night that A&E had not programmed for a number of years.”
A&E’s executives were patient. “We’re in this environment now where networks want to pull the plug after a couple episodes if they’re not seeing results. They saw it, and they were patient and they gave us the room to refine the show and really find our footing,” he said.
Does Live PD take a side?
Police-involved shootings, especially those of unarmed black people shot by white officers, have been in the news frequently, especially when they have been recorded by citizens—and sometimes even broadcast live. Despite recordings, juries have either deadlocked or found those officers to be innocent of crimes.
Live PD positions itself as a way to understand law enforcement’s relationship to the communities it serves.
“There’s this heightened conversation on law enforcement in America, and we’ve created this elevated platform for the public to view it completely transparently and discuss it and bring their own thoughts and impressions to the table,” Cesareo told me.
He also said: “Our goal is to provide the platform for the discussion and not bring an opinion to the table.”
But is it possible to do that while riding along with cops and filming everything from their perspective?
“As a company and as a production team, we approach the show with zero agenda. The goal is: we’re providing an answer to the public’s call for transparency and policing across America, and that has been a hot-button issue,” he said. “It’s a difficult job and it’s difficult for all sides: the public, the officers. There’s a push and pull, but it’s not our job to weigh in.”
Cesareo said that shootings or other incidents posted to social media are less comprehensive than his show.
“There’s thousands of encounters between law enforcement and civilians posted on social media every week,” he said. “Often those encounters are just slivers of moments, they’re incomplete moments, they don’t show the call from beginning to end. That is the big difference what Live PD is doing and what every other law enforcement show and anything that’s come before it.”
Saying that other programs or videos “don’t show the call” seemed to me to be an admission that they’re telling the story from the side of law enforcement on a show that insists it is “completely transparently” presenting reality, so I asked Cesareo about that. (There’s nothing wrong with filming cops’ perspective, of course; the problem for me is insisting and pretending that Live PD shows the whole story, when it doesn’t—it shows one half of the story.)
Cesareo’s response was not to talk about his own show, but to say that journalists do the same thing.
“I think you could make that argument of anyone, any news agency, or any news outlet that’s ever done a ride-along in America. We’re not doing anything different than what the New York Times did last Memorial Day Weekend,” he said.
“That is the access point for these stories in real time. You can come in with a past-tense historical access point from the other side, but that’s not how you document the story in real time,” he said.
I’d say the way you document that story is to embed in communities and tell the stories of people who live there, not just those who have interactions with cops. But I don’t have the #1 cable show on Saturdays.
The privacy and safety of Live PD’s subjects
Cesareo insisted that Live PD “is a natural extension of body cams and dashboard cams, and all of these interactions that are being recorded and pushed out into the public.”
But even the ACLU argues that “the majority of body-camera video should not be subject to public release.” The organization’s policy is that “the exception is where there is a strong public interest in that video that outweighs privacy concerns.”
So what about the privacy of the people being filmed and broadcast live? And what about the consequences, such as a woman learning her son was dead when she saw his body live on TV thanks to Live PD?
I first asked Cesareo if people have the option of not being filmed.
“We follow the same ethical and clearance guideline that news does. I mean, we are tracking and adhering to and all the same rules and ethical decisions that news stations and national news departments are making across the country every night,” he said, without being specific about those rules or ethical guidelines.
I asked if he considered his show news, not entertainment.
“So, A&E is an entertainment network but we are a program on A&E that strictly adheres to news-gathering guidelines,” he said. (A publicist listening in to our telephone interview said: “it’s a documentary program.”)
The show spent a year or so in development before its first broadcast last fall, in part to work through answers to these kinds of questions.
“We spent a lot of time thoughtfully putting together our guidelines, and we adhere to the same guidelines that every news organization across the country adheres to,” Cesareo said, and the publicist added that there are legal teams in the control room monitoring what’s being broadcast.
The show works with police departments, and Cesareo said that producers now “have departments reaching out to us. They see it as a really positive tool that isn’t always positive depending upon what happens in the department’s relationship with the public.” It’s also “a massive commitment” for those agencies, he said, “because we ride along during the week and then go live on Friday and Saturday nights. So, the show is not for everyone. All of the departments that we’ve been embedded with, they want the transparency. … It’s a risk, because they don’t have control over it.”
While Cesareo said that “Big Fish and A&E have complete editorial control,” there are moments where the show works with law enforcement to not broadcast something.
“It would only be an instance or officer safety or operational security,” he said. For example: “We’ve had instances where they show up on a raid and there’s three undercover officers, so we can’t put the safety of those undercover officers at risk, so the operators in the field are given the heads-up: hang back.”
He also gave another example that also makes sense to me: If police are “building up to serve a warrant and it’s a dangerous situation, and because it’s a live show, we have to be very careful because we can’t compromise the operation.”
Live PD does have a tape delay. I’ve read other articles in which producers declined to disclose it, so I asked Cesareo if he’d tell me what the tape delay was—and if not, why not. Is it seconds? Or minutes, so they can have more time to make editorial decisions?
“It’s not something we disclose,” Cesareo said. “It’s not because we’re hiding from it.”
He insisted that “it’s an industry standard delay. It’s a delay we have in place for ethical and security reasons. We’re not always interested in disclosing basically the whole process, and that involves security reasons and ethical ones. But we are well within the guidelines of a live show.”
“There’s a ton of care and thoughtfulness put into this. We’re never going to air something graphic or something inappropriate that is not deemed viewable for the viewers across the country. We have an obligation to the network and we have an obligation to the general public at large,” Cesareo said.
‘Nobody watches the news’
Live PD isn’t just a raw feed of what’s happening with police. There’s a studio element, with a host, Dan Abrams, and in-studio commentators. I have not watched every episode, but the commentary I’ve seen in-studio was from the perspective of law enforcement experts, who’d sometimes speculate on what crimes someone could be guilty of committing.
That further makes the case that anyone who interacts with police is guilty (not “innocent until proven guilty in a court of law,” as COPS used to say).
I asked Cesareo about that, and he said, “I would argue that inside the studio you see push and pull between our law enforcement experts and Dan Abrams.”
Speaking of Abrams: In 2013, his site Mediaite published a story headlined “Good Riddance: Fox Cancels Long-Running, Drug War-Glorifying, Abuse-Excusing Reality Series COPS.” The article that said the show had “a 25-year run valorizing America’s police forces” and would “no longer air its highly-selective take on ‘policing’ to as large an audience as Fox’s Saturday night lineup.”
COPS was criticized for “perpetuating racist stereotypes,” among other things. So does Live PD do the same thing? Abrams told The Wrap that his new show isn’t the same: “Cops was a most-salacious-moments of various police encounters. This is everything. This isn’t just a moment, two moments—this is as-it’s-happening, which I think is just a fundamentally different thing.”
Cesareo told me that the show also creates “constructive dialogue” among its viewers. “The show has a very large social media following, and there are plenty of incidences on Twitter when the show’s airing where people will weigh in on both sides of the issue.”
“I don’t think there’s another show on television that is promoting a dialogue on this level on a weekly basis. Nobody watches the news,” Cesareo added. “This is a hot-button issue and it’s an important issue, and it’s an issue that we have to resolve as a country.”
On that last part, we absolutely agree.