John Langley: The Godfather of Arresting Television
Before John Langley ever came up with the idea for Fox's longrunning, successful Cops series,
he was on track to become a professor of comparative literature. That's
not exactly the career you would imagine for someone who ended up
making his living catching police bust-ins, arrests and high-speed car
chases on tape. But in between studying and teaching, Langley tried his
hand at writing, and some of his scripts caught the eye of Hollywood
studio executives. That led to further assignments and a development
deal with Warner Bros.
Langley's first television project was a documentary called Cocaine Blues
that he shot in 1981 with his then-production partner, Malcolm Barbour.
One of the segments was a live drug raid. It was so exciting, Langley
said, he thought "it would be interesting to do a whole show from this."
It took Langley seven years to convince anyone else of that. When he
finally did, the resulting series changed the face of television. Cops preceded
all the reality fare that dominates both broadcast and cable primetime
today, but its extraordinary influence is hardly due to chronology. Cops introduced
new techniques that today's reality shows employ constantly-like
handheld cameras and no narration or music in the show-but Langley
points out that it's still the only show of its kind.
"There's no other show with no host, no reenactments, that is just
pure raw reality," he said. "And any show that looks like it's doing
that is usually a highly managed show. There's nothing wrong with highly
managed shows, but they aren't showing viewers reality."
It's that attention to the heart of nonfiction programming and a
visionary's sense of pace and impact-worthy of a Brandon Tartikoff
Legacy Award-that Langley's career exemplifies.
"Now a ubiquitous part of cable and broadcast network lineups, John
was really one of the first to usher in this new genre of programming,
featuring real-life characters displaying genuine emotion in outrageous
situations," said Greg Meidel, president of Twentieth Television and
MyNetwork TV. "Over 2,250 reality television series have launched since
the premiere of Cops, many of which have a direct lineage to the unique style of storytelling that John had originally pioneered.
"No one else comes close to duplicating John's vision and
accomplishing what he has done in the reality genre," Meidel added.
"There have been poor attempts at replicating Cops, but nothing that has had the broad appeal that Cops has achieved."
That achievement took about as many turns as a classic cold case.
Langley started pitching his truelife police idea around town in the
early 1980s, but was turned down repeatedly. The closest he got to
anyone taking on his idea was Tribune, where executives told him he had
"a great idea, but we're not going to do it because we already have a
deal with Geraldo Rivera," Langley recalled.
Langley started working with Rivera, producing several network and syndicated specials, including American Vice, Innocence Lost, Sons of Scarface, Devil Worship, Murder: Live From Death Row and Modern Love.
"Those projects gave us the credibility we needed with the networks," Langley said. "We tried to sell [Cops] to everybody, and every network on the planet turned it down."
Then, in 1988, something fateful happened: the writer's strike.
While most of Hollywood suff ered and TV shows were dark, Langley found
opportunity in the widespread work stoppage. "Along came Fox at the
right time and the right place," he said.
Langley ended up pitching the idea to Stephen Chao, who at the time
was a development executive at News Corp.'s new broadcast network, Fox,
which was taking aim at the youth market with edgy fare.
"I pitched him
every show you can imagine, and he said no to everything," Langley said
of Chao. "Finally, he told me to come in and pitch one more time, and I
said no. ‘You wouldn't know a good show if it slapped you in the face,' I
told him. Of course that got him excited, so he demanded that I come
back in and pitch him. I got in front of [Chao] and [then-Fox boss]
Barry Diller, told them the idea one more time, and they told me to go
That obstacle finally removed, Langley turned around to find another
one right in his face: Police departments were extremely reluctant to
"Police and media were perceived to be enemies at the time," he
said. "Newspapers were interested in stories of malfeasance, and police
departments wanted no part of it."
Langley did have one in, however. While doing the specials with
Rivera, he had worked with Broward County, Fla., sheriff Nick Navarro.
Langley said he told Navarro what he was doing, and Navarro said:
"'Sure, come on down. Let the chips fall where they may, we have nothing
to hide.'" Langley shot the pilot in Florida, and from there, the walls
started to fall.
"We had a great critical response to the show because nothing like
it had been on network TV before," Langley recalled. "That led to a lot
of people tuning in, including police departments. Today, very few
police departments have said no to us."
Nearly 25 years later, Cops is a television institution. It's
Fox's longest-running series, with the 850th episode scheduled to air
this year. Cops also has aired in syndication for the past 20 years, and
a new version of the show-Cops Reloaded-is being recut to air in broadcast and cable syndication this fall.
Langley has since branched out into filmmaking and original cable
production of programs he produces with his son Morgan, such as Vegas Strip, Las Vegas Jailhouse, Street Patrol and the upcoming Undercover Stings. "I never thought Cops would run 25 years, not even close," Langley said. "I was just hoping to get the show on the air."
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Contributing editor Paige Albiniak has been covering the business of television for nearly 25 years. She is a longtime contributor to Next TV, Broadcasting + Cable and Multichannel News. She concurrently serves as editorial director for entertainment marketing association Promax. She has written for such publications as TVNewsCheck, The New York Post, Variety, CBS Watch and more. Albiniak was B+C’s Los Angeles bureau chief from September 2002 to 2004, and an associate editor covering Congress and lobbying for the magazine in Washington, D.C., from January 1997-September 2002.