One of the longest running reality shows on television almost didn’t make it on the air.
John Langley was a wannabe documentary filmmaker, but he soon realized that with four children a life as an independent producer might not be the way to go.
But that didn’t stop him from putting it all on the line to bring documentary filmmaking to TV.
Langley had the idea to show something dramatic that affects everyone in the country; he wanted to show how the general public and police officers interact.
From that he came up with the idea for “Cops.”
This wasn’t Langley’s first time working with law enforcement. “In 1981 I did a show called ‘Cocaine Blues’,” explains Langley, “During that show, I went on a drug bust and the cops were great. That’s when I realized that I could do this. Unfortunately, then it took seven years to sell it.”
During those years, although others were skeptical about a show with no narration, no re-enactments, no script, no writers, and no actors, Langley never gave up on the idea. “I’m like all creative people in that you have to be arrogant about your own beliefs,” clarifies Langley. “You have to be a true believer in your project and I was. I wouldn’t take no for an answer and anyone who didn’t get it was ill informed or not too bright.”
Finally, he found a home for the show on the Fox network, where it remained for 25 years before moving to Spike TV this year.
“I certainly didn’t believe it would be on air for 25 years,” says Langley with a tone of genuine surprise, “I just wanted to get a show on the air and I wanted that show to be a great show.”
And while many may say that “Cops” seems to be ground zero for the genre of reality TV, Langley is quick to point out that other shows, such as “Candid Camera” may really have been the first genus of the subset.
Prior to “Cops,” Langley paid his dues, as he says, by “Doing crap work on things like exercise videos. But I had to do that to get myself where I wanted to be. It’s all part of the process; working to getting better at your craft. You learn something from everything you do. At the time I wasn’t thrilled with some of the stuff I was doing, but it was a gig and it all helped me move forward. You have to have a target or you’ll never hit it.”
Langley moved on to produce specials that included an inside look at the mafia and an exclusive interview with convicted mass murderer Charles Manson.
“All of those specials helped me hone my skills for ‘Cops,’ ” summarizes Langley.
On one of the shows that he produced, called “America’s Vice,” which featured live drug busts, Langley encountered a unique situation that can only happen with live television. “It was all live,” begins Langley, with a smile on his face. “We were ready to bust into this house with the police and all of the sudden the director of the show wants us to wait until after the commercial break.” It’s at this point that Langley actually begins to chuckle as he tells the rest of the story. “Well, at that very moment, the sound man chickened out. So, I grabbed his equipment and said, ‘there’s no waiting, it’s go time.’ The police announced themselves as we burst in and they start arresting everyone. I look at the TV and there on the TV that these guys were watching is the slightly delayed version of what we’re doing. It was a very successful, dramatic drug bust. It was weird watching it on that seven second delay.”
While Langley finds it exhilarating to participant in these types of raids, there are things that take place while filming that are upsetting to him. “When I was in the field, I saw a lot – head injuries, homicides, and those are not pretty – but the worst is family violence, anything that involves kids, that’s the stuff that really stays with you.”
When the show hit the air all those years ago, little did Langley know that “Cops” and it’s ‘Bad Boys’ theme song, would become part of the common lexicon. “I didn’t envision that at all,” says Langley. “There’ve been a lot of parodies and to me that’s actually a compliment.”
Now that the show is moving to a new network, Langley is entrusting the future of the program to someone he has the utmost faith in; his son, Morgan.
“I grew up with this,” explains Morgan, “and for me it was an ideal way to go up. To watch the show grow into this really iconic thing has been amazing.”
Morgan insists that “Cops,” despite the shift in networks, is staying true to form. “We know what we’re doing and we want to keep doing it at the level that we’ve achieved.”
And for those who see it as a Saturday night staple, the good news is that that’s exactly where the show will stay.
“We’re really happy to be able to keep this going on a continuous basis on Saturday nights,” expressed Morgan. “It’s still a very distinct show. There are others like it, but there really is only one ‘Cops.’ I think we have a unique niche in the way we make television and clearly people respond to it.”
The elder Langley, who has seen his tenacity rewarded not only with a show on the air for a quarter century but a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame as well, has a new target now; one that means more to him than all of that. “I want to see Morgan continue to be extremely successful in everything that he does. I’ve confident that I’ll see him exceed everything I’ve ever done.”
For his part, Morgan insists that he’s up to the challenge of carrying on the show his father labored to build, saying, “I grew up with this and I’m happy that I did. I’ve seen how hard he’s worked so I know what it takes.”
If the multi-generation success of the Langley family continues, which it appears that it will, there will no doubt be more shows that highlight their achievements on the air 25 years from now.
For now, the Saturday night tradition of watching ‘Cops’ bring down the bad guys continues; thanks to the Langley family.
All new episodes of “Cops” air on Spike TV Saturday nights at 8e. Spike also airs reruns of the show at various times throughout the week. For specific episode information and airtimes, please visit Spike TV.