“We have an obligation to the network and we have an obligation to the general public at large,” Live PD creator and executive producer Dan Cesareo told me in an interview three years ago.
But what is their obligation to police departments they cover? Or to the public? The answer is in the contracts that police departments and sheriffs’ offices have signed with the producers of A&E’s hit reality show, Big Fish Entertainment. It details the power that police have to prevent content from airing, the public resources that are given to Live PD free of charge, and much more.
The show has come under sustained criticism this week, especially after a report in the Austin Statesman revealed that the show’s cameras were filming for a pre-recorded segment when Javier Ambler, a 40-year-old father and black man, was restrained and tased repeatedly as he said, “I can’t breathe” before falling unconscious and dying. The report said that the sheriff “and Live PD producers have repeatedly stonewalled [the district attorney’s office’s] efforts to obtain evidence or interviews with the officers involved.” While the show didn’t respond to the newspaper’s requests for information, A&E told the paper yesterday that “video of the tragic death of Javier Ambler was captured by body cams worn on the officers involved as well by the producers of Live PD who were riding with certain officers involved” but said they had not received a request for video or interviews with producers, and destroyed the footage: “As is the case with all footage taken by Live PD producers, we no longer retained the unaired footage after learning that the investigation had concluded.”
Williamson County commissioners have sued the sheriff and producers over a contract they signed in March, and as part of reporting on that dispute, KXAN in Texas requested and received the contract the show has with the Williamson County Sheriff’s Office, and included it as a download in an article.
Tulsa’s KJRH previously reported on the contract, and included a download of the PDF, which is public record. (It’s also been previously obtained and published by the Tulsa World.) Tulsa’s mayor now says the city will not renew its contract with the show.
I’ve embedded both contracts below, and annotated the Tulsa Police Department contract with my analysis. It is often identical to the contract the show has with Williamson County’s sheriff, and I’ve included that, too, for comparison.
Why Live PD exists
When Live PD first premiered in the fall of 2016, A&E said that the network “will offer viewers unfettered and unfiltered live access inside the country’s busiest police forces and the communities they patrol in the new documentary series Live PD.”
An attached exhibit to the contract details more of the relationship between the agency and the production, and offers an argument for the show’s existence: it cites cell phone footage, dashboard cam footage, and “‘live tweeting’ from patrol units to the community,” and says “‘Live PD’ will be an extension of this close to real-time communication and outreach effort.”
So Live PD is explicitly telling law enforcement that the show will be part of law enforcement’s “outreach effort.”
The show also promises police that there will be “‘The appearance of’ no editing,” with “the appearance of” in scare quotes.” The sentence goes on to say that will provide viewers with “the feeling as if content is coming straight from the street to living rooms across America.”
Live PD’s tape delay
The original series, Live PD, has both live segments, and also pre-recorded segments that are filmed during the week.
For its actual live content, it’s been clear since the premiere that Live PD is not truly live on Friday and Saturday nights, but operating with a delay. Delays are standard for live broadcasts, allowing a show’s control room to edit content before it’s broadcast, such as bleeping a swear word or cutting away from a streaker. For example, ABC’s broadcast of the Oscars used a five-second tape delay in 2014.
But Live PD producers and A&E have refused to identify how long that delay is. When I interviewed creator and executive producer Dan Cesareo, he said, “It’s not something we disclose. It’s not because we’re hiding from it.”
He also told me “it’s an industry standard delay” that’s “for ethical and security reasons.”
But the show’s contracts with police departments actually identifies the amount of time of Live PD’s tape delay: It’s a “10-25 minute time delay” that “will allow us to eliminate or blur sensitive material and address any legal concerns prior to broadcast,” the contracts say.
The contracts detail the access that the departments give the show, both in terms of filming and for logistical support. The production’s work is done “at no cost to the department,” but there is also no information about any compensation given to them or to the communities.
And it gives law enforcement agencies power to restrict access and even stop filming.
- Officers are “able to stop filming at their discretion” “at all times.”
- Live PD’s film crews have two or three people: “one camera operator, one audio person and one producer (only when necessary),” and they agree to “follow the direction of their assigned law enforcement” and “shall not interfere” with any police work.
- Producers agree to work with the law enforcement agency to “develop strict protocols in regards to the parameters of filming.”
- The police department can prevent producers from accessing spaces on police property.
- Live PD‘s crews are given space on public property to do things like store equipment and charge batteries. Producers do agree to pay for their own parking.
Editing and review
The contract gives the police departments the ability to review and prevent footage from airing.
- For live broadcasts, i.e. Live PD’s Friday and Saturday night shows, police have “the right to be in the local control room” via a representative, who has “the right to dis-allow … the use of any footage that specifically poses a safety or security risk.”
- Examples given for that include “recognition of a confidential informant, undercover officer, confidential investigative tactics, material factual inaccuracies, confidential matters that cannot be published according to law”
- Police have “the right to dis-allow” pre-recorded footage from being broadcast, if they identify it within 48 hours. The contract the says this is for “identifying any safety or security risks” such as “recognition of a confidential informant, undercover officer, etc.”
- While producers says they retain “the final decision regarding the creative content of the Series,” which is defined as “themes, featured events, story line, timeline, sequence of events, etc,” that creative output is still “subject to [police department’s] review rights”
Also, as noted above, officers being followed by camera crews are “able to stop filming at their discretion.”
Ownership and exclusivity
Big Fish Entertainment retains ownership and copyright over all the footage it films.
They also get the exclusive rights “to develop and/or produce programming of a similar format or concept that depicts the activities of [the police department] in any audio-visual media.”
Exceptions include news coverage of police activities, and also pre-existing relationships, such as Tulsa’s agreement with A&E’s The First 48 to film with them.
How Live PD protects the police
“No police officer will be filmed who has not given written permission. The privacy of all officers will be respected and strictly enforced,” the contract says.
It also says the “safety of the officers and film crew are paramount.”
Whose safety is missing from that sentence?
How Live PD protects the public
The contract is between a production company and a police department, so it’s understandable that they are the two entities that are mentioned most often.
But Live PD doesn’t happen without law enforcement interacting with the citizens who they work for, but who have no contractual agreement with the show, at least not until they sign releases.
There are essentially no references to citizens, bystanders, suspects, or others.
One clause says Big Fish Entertainment is “responsible for obtaining all necessary consents and/or releases,” but it doesn’t mention who specifically would have to sign those (i.e. members of the public who are being filmed for entertainment).
In one place, the contract says police can review footage to identify and remove “confidential matters that cannot be published according to law,” and that includes “suspect or witness social security numbers.”
That’s the only mention of suspects and witnesses.
In other words, the contract gives much more power to police than it does to the people they serve, and the people that Big Fish Entertainment and A&E turn into entertainment that they profit from.