Langley Productions Continues To Push Reality Forward
20th Century Fox Television
It’s hard to imagine turning on the television today without having a selection of reality television programs filling the airwaves. Twenty-three years ago, when producer John Langley pitched the idea for a show that had cameramen filming police officers engaged in criminal pursuits, there were no reality based shows on prime time television. Langley’s show, “Cops,” paved the way for a generation of reality shows that followed.
411 Publishing recently spoke with John Langley, President of Langley Productions, and Morgan Langley who handles Film and Television development at Langley Productions to discuss the longevity of “Cops” as well as their other reality programs.
411 Publishing: John, I know you began your career producing features and other documentary programming. What were the challenges at that point in time when you pitched the idea of a reality TV show?
John Langley: Well, back in those days, all the so called reality shows were called documentaries, and documentary programming had a stigma attached to it, you would expect to see it on National Public TV, it wasn’t all that appealing from a commercial standpoint. But when I came up with “Cops,” it was a little different. It looked exciting and challenging, and it was a window into different worlds, and that’s what stimulated interest with Fox. I think that what we succeeded in doing was make it appealing to the public at large by demonstrating that reality was indeed fascinating, often more so than fiction, and it could sustain an audience. After Fox bought “Cops,” all the networks were clamoring for similar programming.
No script, no actors, no announcer, no host
411: John and Morgan, the 23rd season of “Cops” is currently hitting the airwaves. How have you been able to keep the format fresh and keep the viewers engaged year after year?
John: Morgan actually grew up on this show, so he has his own unique perspective about it. But back in the early days, I think what made it fresh was its difference of offering unmitigated, pure reality with no script, no actors, no announcer, no host. Commercial TV had never had anything quite like that, ever. Our hallmark is the fewer edits, the better the show. We literally have shows that may have five minutes with not one edit. A very MTV kind of style has invaded the landscape and people like a lot of edits to generate excitement and energy. The energy in “Cops” is based on the fact that it is utterly real.
Morgan Langley: I think that the format itself hasn’t changed in any fundamental way; it’s just the fact that the show is so real. You’re dealing with human behavior and it is very unpredictable and I think it is compelling for audiences. The only thing that I think has changed over the years is the bar for our material is higher now. In the early episodes it was amazing just to go and ride along in the back of a police car. That was compelling in and of it self. But as time has gone on, I would say that now we really have to push harder to get new, compelling stories and characters and show the audience things they haven’t seen before.
411: I’m sure there were initially very unique challenges to getting the show on the air. As the years have passed and as more reality has seeped into the landscape, have there been new challenges in obtaining releases or finding talent willing to appear on the show?
Morgan: The releases themselves have actually become easier because of the culture that we are living in. Everybody wants to be on television and become a celebrity. 98-99 percent of the people enthusiastically sign releases to be on all of our shows.
John: The difficulty is that we often get calls from people complaining about something they saw. When we start researching it, it was somebody else doing a show that involves police officers.
Morgan: They see a camera and they assume it is “Cops.”
John: It’s true. There have been tons of shows from “48 Hours” to everything you can think of that have nothing to do with our program, and yet people will assume that it is us because there are cameras and police officers.
Morgan: I think another thing that is big that the public doesn’t understand is that it’s harder and harder to be a cop every year because police are afraid to be proactive. It’s a very litigious society and people want to catch a cop doing something wrong.
John: Many police departments have “no chase policies”, so you can’t go after criminals, unless there are very restrictive circumstances and you have approvals. It’s a very under the microscope kind of job that has become increasingly difficult for police officers.
411: I was watching “Las Vegas Jailhouse” and I noticed they had an officer there videotaping everything that was going on.
John: Oh yes, Marj, for that very reason. The video tape can exonerate as well as condemn you. We’re not there to tell the police what to do or to tell suspects what to do. We are simply there to record what happens. We’re not making an editorial judgment about it, other than putting it in a show because it’s interesting. That’s the extent of our editorial judgment.
411: What kind of qualities or qualifications are you looking for in the people you hire to crew the shoots?
John: We need guys that are constantly on their toes and ready to film and keep cameras rolling, because you don’t know what is going to happen, you don’t know when it is going to happen, so anything that looks like a call you have to keep filming and then you won’t miss it. When you cut cameras off and turn them back on, that’s when you start editing, so our objective is to hose it down, which means just keep filming until the instance is over.
Morgan: All our guys we’ve given bullet proof vest because it’s potentially dangerous. The guys have been certainly in precarious situations and have been shot at and have been in riot-type situations. Fortunately we’ve got a lot of camera people who have been with us for many years, so we have some very experienced people as well, and every year we have a big training seminar at the beginning of each season to prep everyone. It’s also really tough because they can’t manage reality. They are stuck in a police car five days a week, ten hours a day and they might remain in one of these for eight weeks so it’s a lot of hours in a police car basically waiting for compelling material to happen. It is a challenging job and it requires a unique mind set and a certain kind of person, and we’ve got some great guys.
The human jungle
411: It seems like it requires a mixture of the patience of a wildlife documentarian combined with an extreme sports enthusiasm.
John: Well put! It’s the human jungle!
Morgan: I think that’s accurate. The show has gotten more extreme over the years for many reasons. It’s a grind, that’s for sure.
John: It’s a good bachelor gig; it’s not a good married man gig.
Morgan: That’s true; most of the guys are young guys out on the road. It’s hard to be a “Cops” cameraman and be in your 50s, but we do have one guy who has been with us for 20 years. And he’s still one of our top cameramen.
John: After a number of seasons, some people just burn out and say, ‘You know, I can’t handle it anymore.’ It’s tough on the system to see all the things that they see, including homicides and car crashes and drug dealers and drug addicts and domestics.
Morgan: Everybody knows that cops can get frazzled with the kind of stuff they are exposed to. The same holds true for crew members, obviously they are out there in that milieu. It can wear on you psychologically.
John: And you start judging the universe by the milieu in which you work, and that’s not always appropriate. If you are working in a prison or a jail, all of life is not a prison or a jail. You’re getting a distorted experience of the universe
Morgan: It’s a tiny portion of humanity and of reality.
John: Right and wrong, it’s never quite that simple.
411: Looking at some of the other projects you’ve been able to develop, like “Las Vegas Jailhouse” and “Vegas Strip,” what’s inspired you to keep finding new ways to highlighting the law enforcement genre?
John: It’s a fascination with life and death, good and evil, right and wrong, society versus individuals, law psychology; all of those things are fascinating material.
Morgan: It’s very true, I feel the same way, A good thing about it is that we don’t like people copying us, and I think that we know how to do these shows, so we’d rather do as much as we can in the space and do it well, then watch other people copy us and..
John: Botch it.
411: “Vegas Strip” is interesting because when one thinks of Vegas, a rather “lawless” state comes to mind. How long did it take to get that show up and off the ground?
Morgan: It was a long process, actually. It’s been over a year, or a year and a half. The strip presents challenges of its own in terms of how we run a production, it was a lot more narrow focused and specific than what we did for “Cops.” But I think what is ultimately interesting about it is that it is a different kind of entry into the law enforcement world that we haven’t exactly seen before, because the strip is unique, and it is kind of a lawless, Barbary Coast environment.
411: Do you have a team that is doing research all across the nation that are finding the best places to incorporate into the shows?
John: We have a producer out in the field who is always scouting out different areas; Morgan also scouts out different areas. Bear in mind that we’ve been doing this for twenty something years, so we know pretty much where to expect the more active police departments and activity to be, and we’ve been to most of the departments in all honesty, I don’t think there are too many places we’ve missed. We literally go by crime stats as well as geography and weather, because you get better segments in better weather. If you are in a blizzard or a snow storm, you’re not going to get too much activity. You’re not going to get too much crime, frankly, and that’s the good news. The bad news is that you’re going to freeze.
Morgan: I’m in Vegas now and it is 100 degrees and I can see from my hotel room that there is literally chaos on the strip right now: people everywhere screaming and yelling. When you get that, you know, crime happens.
411: For all of the shows you produce, such as “Cops” and “Las Vegas Jailhouse,” do you get to interview the officers to find the right personalities?
John: Oh yes, all of these shows are part casting. I mean there are certain basic instances of television that apply to reality of fiction or talk show. You want really telegenic, interesting people. What’s fortunate for us is that many police and correction officers are highly telegenic, highly intelligent and highly interesting because they deal with a wide variety of humanity and extremists, and all kinds of situations so it makes for interesting viewing.
Morgan: That lead officer is the hero of the story, that person needs to be someone that the audience will listen to and emphasize with and get into their point of view. So you need somebody who is an articulate and dynamic personality.
We’re also doing 3D
411: I noticed the “Cops” game on the website. How has multimedia and social networking been integrating into your roles as producers?
John: This is a question for Morgan; he’s the young guy who understands all this.
Morgan: Actually, our focus has always been first and foremost to produce television shows. But it is now getting to the point where it is impossible to be a producer without getting involved with all those avenues that promote your show. You’re going to see a lot of new things this year in those areas that we haven’t fully exploited in the past. On the other hand a lot of people tweet about “Cops” or our other shows, and fans have just taken this up themselves. There is a lot of activity and chatter online about our shows, so we’ll be doing more ourselves moving forward to make sure that we use those avenues of promotion.
411: In regards to technology and different kinds of cameras and equipment, have you explored different technology that really aids in the production of the segments?
Morgan: We’ve stayed ahead of the curve and we’ve moved forward with the innovations. Everything now is shot in HD.
John: We’ve also doing 3D stuff in other arenas, and we have a show coming out called “Road Warriors” that we just shot in 3D of an off-road race down in Mexico. So we’re trying to stay in the forefront of whatever the technology is in our time. And, you know, we may be doing a “Cops 3D” before it’s all over!
To learn more about Langley Productions and the various programming they produce, please visit: