Live PD Stakes Out a Big Niche

Reality series Live PD has become A&E’s most-watched show since it launched in October of 2016. The show’s premise of offering simultaneous live look-ins at law enforcement activity from up to eight police departments has created a ratings phenomena for the network and the show’s producer, Big Fish.

But when Big Fish — which had yet to produce a live program — first knocked on A&E’s door with the Live PD pitch, executives said it wasn’t a sure bet the producer could pull off such a difficult feat, or that viewers would watch in big numbers.

“When this idea came into the door, it was an unproducible show in my mind, but it would be so amazing if we could make it work,” Elaine Frontain Bryant, A&E executive VP and head of programming, said.

Added Big Fish founder and president Dan Cesareo: “I think there was an element of it that scared them, and I don’t think they were sure if we were going to actually be able to pull it off, but they were willing to bet on us. We didn’t have any live pedigree, but there was a level of comfort and a relationship there that they were willing to lean into.”

Nearly 200 episodes later, Big Fish has delivered live content featuring police activity from around the country, and viewers have responded. Since its launch, Live PD has averaged nearly 2 million viewers (on a Nielsen live-plus-same day basis). Since its premiere in 2016 through the end of 2018, A&E’s Live PD audience has grown by about 140% in total viewers on a live-plus-7 basis, per Nielsen.

Live PD host and TV newscaster Dan Abrams said Big Fish and Cesareo were able to successfully balance the technical challenges of switching from one live site to another while remaining sensitive to law enforcement’s efforts to thwart crimes happening in real time.

“Dan [Cesareo] is like a maestro in the control room — he is dealing with eight live departments at once — there is so much happening, and yet in the end it’s a live production,” Abrams said. “In the news world, we’re dealing with maybe two or three live events at once, if ever. This is eight, and Dan is orchestrating it in a way that it becomes storytelling. You get an insight as to what police officers are dealing with on a daily basis.”

The series has generated several spinoffs, and although those shows don’t air live, they do feature the Live PD signature. A&E’s Live PD Presents: PD Cam, which shows ongoing crimes using officers’ body cameras, dash cams and helicopter footage, debuted in July 2018 as A&E’s top new series of the year. Sibling net Lifetime’s Live PD Presents: Women on Patrol — which follows female law enforcement officers from around the country — has an order for an additional 20 episodes on top of the show’s initial 20-episode run that began last June.

A third show, Live PD: Police Patrol, has for three seasons offered packaged content not included in the live show, according to A&E. (See Distribution.)

Live PD has paved a path for shows in a similar vein, including Discovery Channel’s Border Patrol Live, which focuses its cameras on U.S.-Mexico border crossings. And Nat Geo Wild next month will launch Animal ER Live, capturing the heroics of veterinarians in animal hospitals in real time.

“I believe that it’s been one of the biggest innovations in the non-scripted genre in several years,” Frontain Bryant said. “Anecdotally, I hear that everyone is looking for their Live PD and people have already tried to rip it off.”

Abrams cautioned networks trying to duplicate the success of Live PD that the task won’t be easy.

“I think you’ve seen that it’s not so easy to just say, ‘Hey, let’s do a live unscripted TV show,’ ” he said. “Discovery discovered that with Border Live,” which was not renewed after its initial six-episode run this past December.

“Being live with police or firefighters or whomever you want to put there isn’t going to necessarily work,” Abrams said. “Live PD is like an orchestra, and there are these many different pieces to it — far more than just what people see, which is the final product.”

The success of Live PD inspired Abrams to launch his new cable network Law&Crime, with live court proceedings during the day and legal analysis and opinion at night. “One of the reasons I pursued Law&Crime network was seeing how the audience on Live PD was willing to wait and join for a sometimes long, not always action-packed journey,” he said.

R. Thomas Umstead

R. Thomas Umstead serves as senior content producer, programming for Multichannel News, Broadcasting + Cable and Next TV. During his more than 30-year career as a print and online journalist, Umstead has written articles on a variety of subjects ranging from TV technology, marketing and sports production to content distribution and development. He has provided expert commentary on television issues and trends for such TV, print, radio and streaming outlets as Fox News, CNBC, the Today show, USA Today, The New York Times and National Public Radio. Umstead has also filmed, produced and edited more than 100 original video interviews, profiles and news reports featuring key cable television executives as well as entertainers and celebrity personalities.