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From Cops to Big Brother to Live PD, reality TV is a big part of the problem

MTV, VH1, Nickelodeon, and other ViacomCBS networks all broke from their normal programming at 5 p.m. Monday. For eight minutes and 46 seconds, those networks broadcast a countdown, the entire time that a Minneapolis police officer kneed on the neck of George Floyd, killing him as he cried out, “I can’t breathe.”

Fast Company called it “the most powerful corporate response to the George Floyd murder.” One of the networks it aired on is Paramount Network, which used to be called Spike, but which still airs Cops, a show that continues to perpetuate the “systemic racism” that ViacomCBS networks insisted they want to end. And that is just one example, from Live PD to Big Brother.

Before I watched The Real World, I watched Cops. I loved it.

The Fox show was so raw, so real. Just footage of police officers in their cars, talking, until they were suddenly in pursuit: running, a camera operator behind them, shaking the camera but capturing the good people.

From my overwhelmingly white suburban neighborhood, I watched, enthralled as the good guys took down the “Bad Boys.”

What the show didn’t have was an ongoing narrative involving the same characters, like The Real World would introduce a few years later.

But it turns out Cops actually did have that narrative. It was just invisible to me.

Behind the scenes of Cops

Headlong: Running from Cops

Last summer, a six-episode podcast called Running from Cops peeled back the layers of curtain blanketing a reality show that’s now been on the air since 1989.

The podcast was hosted by Dan Taberski, who hosted and produced Missing Richard Simmons, and also worked in reality TV, creating the 2009 show Destroy Build Destroy.

Whether he’s talking to Cops creator John Langley and his son, Morgan Langley or the people whose arrests were captured by the show’s cameras, Taberski continually breaks down the facade the show presents.

Did you know that actual cops have coerced people into signing film releases on behalf of the producers? That crew members have carried guns and assisted the actual police? That the production gives police departments the ability to edit or change anything they don’t like? I didn’t.

For Running from Cops, Taberski and his team also watched and documented the content of 846 episodes. Here’s a spoiler of what they found, from Nick Quah’s review in Vulture: “Cops portrays hard-luck communities and communities of color as more characterized by criminality than they actually are, and that it reinforces conceptions of certain groups as being distinctly delinquent.”

Quah called the show “the distillation of a toxic combination of corporate interest and state propaganda.”

Even a cop featured on Cops thinks it’s a poor representation of policing. Yet for 31 years, the show has been pumping the same message onto television, the same kinds of pictures, burning those images into my teenage brain. This is what happens, and this is the acceptable response, the show says.

As the Equal Justice Initiative founder Bryan Stevenson told The New Yorker, “We have created a culture where police officers think of themselves as warriors, not guardians.”

And Cops creates a culture where people, especially white people like me watching from the safety of our living rooms, see police officers tackling black people and other people of color as normal, as acceptable, as evidence that they are keeping us safe.

Cops is still on the air: season 33 is scheduled to start Monday on Paramount Network. But it’s been far surpassed in popularity by Live PD, which has dumped high ratings into A&E’s lap. The network is gorging on it, repeatedly ordering hundreds of hours of new episodes, including a recent new order of 160 episodes.

Dan Abrams, Live PD, A&E
Dan Abrams, host of one of A&E’s success stories, Live PD. (Photo by Scott Gries/A&E)

It’s produced by Big Fish Entertainment, which is owned by MGM, whose TV division is run by Mark Burnett, who you may remember from his role in creating Survivor and The Apprentice.

For almost four years now, Live PD has been offering a “heightened conversation on law enforcement in America,” having “created this elevated platform for the public to view it completely transparently.” At least, that’s according what its creator and executive producer, Dan Cesareo, told me in an interview a few years ago.

A&E just sent out a press release heralding the show’s 300th episode, which airs this Saturday, and in that release, called the show “groundbreaking” and said it “showcases the policing of America, following diverse police departments from across the country in real time as they patrol their communities.”

“Showcase” is an oddly accurate description. Just like Cops did, it tells the story of policing from the perspective of police. To argue that that we are viewing events “completely transparently” ignores the most basic fact: the camera crews are embedded with the police, not with people in their communities, not with the daily lives of people who live in fear of being stopped by police because of the violence that is repeatedly committed against them.

I tried to ask Cesareo about this, but he wouldn’t acknowledge that this is a story told from the police point of view. He refused to answer simple questions, like about how much of a time delay the show has, and instead tried to pretend that his show was journalistic. “We’re not doing anything different than what the New York Times did last Memorial Day Weekend,” he said.

That’s a convenient way of avoiding the fact that his show is not at all journalism, but entertainment, reality TV that makes a profit off of other people’s pain.

A&E loves to pretend that its shows are just reality, copied and pasted onto the screen, but they are highly produced, often manipulated, frequently unethical messes.

The publicist who’d set up the interview was not happy with my piece, e-mailing me to say that my writing was “undermining Dan’s responses and the format of the show,” and they were “disappointed with some of the positioning.”

Ironically, that’s what I was trying to ask Dan about: How his show positions policing, how it centers the views of police. It’s also precious that they expected a puff piece, for me to present him in the best possible light. Where could they have gotten that idea that subjects get to control the story? If they think a TV critic and journalist should present only an interview subject’s point of view, and Dan Cesareo also thinks that Live PD is journalism, whose point of view is he presenting?

Alas, Dan Cesareo wasn’t even willing to have a conversation. Why would he? When you have a hit show, you don’t start asking ethical and moral questions that could threaten it.

In the past few days, Tulsa’s mayor, police chief, and people advocating for police reform announced that they’d agreed on a path forward, and that includes ending the city’s relationship with Live PD—which activists have long been fighting for.

A&E should also end their relationship with the show. Of course, they won’t; it’s their most-popular show. They did post a message to social media saying “We stand against racism,” but will they take action to stop their own role in contributing to a world where black people are dehumanized and where policing is treated as heroic?

Likewise, ViacomCBS should actually do something with the networks he oversees other than just spending eight minutes and 46 seconds to “shine a light on the realities of racial injustice and call for equality.”

That’s what Chris McCarthy, who now oversees an empire of cable networks at ViacomCBS, wrote in an internal note. He also wrote that, “during this time, when Black lives are under attack in so many ways, we want to leverage all of our platforms to show our ally-ship” and said “we have a responsibility to get involved and be part of the solution.”

Start with this, Chris: Cancel Cops, now. Immediately. Never air season 33. Pull any scheduled reruns.

One of ViacomCBS’s networks, BET, said in a press release that it would be producing “a series of programming addressing systemic racism, the violence faced by Black people in America and the solutions to help move the country forward,” including a town hall “to which BET News invites President Donald Trump and Presumptive Democratic Presidential Nominee, Joe Biden, to directly address the concerns of Black America and share their plans to move the country forward.”

Terrific. But the “responsibility to get involved” needs to be more than just posting messages of support or planning special programming. And I hope ViacomCBS doesn’t leave these conversations to BET alone. They need to be happening in white spaces, too.

Also, even if Paramount cancelled Cops, the problem is never one show, or one cast member, or one producer. The problem is patterns: almost three decades now of reality shows that often reinforce stereotypes or dehumanize black people and people of color, as we saw with the Big Brother producer who told Kemi to act and talk in a more stereotypical way, or the Survivor producers who stood by and filmed while women of color were the recipients of unwanted touching from a white man.

That one Big Brother producer, that one Survivor cast member—they are just cogs in an ecosystem, yet CBS executives pretended that it was just one bad apple. That excuse, that cliche, no longer works. The problem is not a single person or single event. It is the repetition of those events, the repetition of those actions. It didn’t even occur to anyone at CBS or Survivor to do anything to change their show until more than eight months after filming ended.

People in power like to focus on that one example because it’s so much more difficult to tackle systemic problems. What about Big Brother and its production allowed that to happen? What patterns have we seen year after year that gave the producer the idea that this was okay?

Big Brother has repeatedly, season after season, given shelter to racist cast members and done nothing about bigotry. It is not the only reality show to do this, of course, though it gives us more examples because the live feeds streaming to the Internet provide—in the moments before the producers can pull the plug—an unedited, unvarnished look at what people are saying or doing.

Part of this particular moment is recognizing that it’s not a single traumatic event that we’re all experiencing collectively and equally, like Sept. 11, 2001. It’s generations of trauma, and lifetimes of systemic abuse, and which affect some of us very differently than others.

The people who make and air reality television shows now have a clear choice: continue to contribute to that trauma and systemic abuse, or make real, substantive changes.

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About the author

  • Andy Dehnart is the creator of reality blurred and a writer and teacher who obsessively and critically covers reality TV and unscripted entertainment, focusing on how it’s made and what it means. Learn more about Andy.

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