“The times they are a-changing,” some hippie kid once sang. And change, for a lot of people, can be frightening. There are those who view 2020’s rapid changes not as a natural social evolution, but as an unnatural symptom of left-wing “cancel culture.” Last week, for example, some people took the opportunity to freak out over the fact that “the mob” was forcing PepsiCo to discontinue the 130-year-old pancake mix brand Aunt Jemima. For whatever reason, these same people seemed significantly less concerned 26 years ago when “the mob” forced PepsiCo to cancel Crystal Pepsi.
And now social change, driven by the massive wave of protests in the wake of George Floyd’s death at the hands of Minneapolis police, has resulted in the cancellation of a pair of popular docu-reality TV shows about police. On June 9 Paramount Network cancelled the long-running “Cops” after 33 seasons on the air (25 of which were on FOX, 5 on Spike and the remainder on Paramount). The very next day, A&E Network announced it was ending its “Cops” clone “Live PD”—an even bolder move given that “Live PD” regularly pulls in around 2.5 million viewers and pushes A&E to the top of the weekend cable ratings.
“This is a critical time in our nation’s history and we have made the decision to cease production on Live PD,” A&E said in a statement. “Going forward, we will determine if there is a clear pathway to tell the stories of both the community and the police officers whose role it is to serve them. And with that, we will be meeting with community and civil rights leaders as well as police departments.”
To some it’s an err on the side of caution during a particularly sensitive flashpoint in our nation’s history. To others it counts as a senseless villainization of police. Fox News, for example, took to the airwaves to editorialize that Nick Jr.’s “Paw Patrol”—a cartoon about “first responder” puppies—is next on the chopping block. (It isn’t. The show remains on the air, and calls to remove it were tongue-in-cheek jokes—something Fox is particularly bad at recognizing.)
There are arguments to be made on both sides of the issue, of course. Networks are private corporations, free to add and subtract shows for whatever reason they see fit. Are they simply offering a knee-jerk reaction to the protests du jour, fearful of liberal-minded boycotts and other more heavy-handed tactics? Perhaps. But if corporations are bending in the wind these days, responding to the will of the people, it’s nice to see them doing so in a progressive direction. Perhaps we should take to the streets and start protesting drug prices and industrial pollution now.
On the other hand, maybe now is the time to offer up role models of “good” police behavior. If adding people of color or LGBTQ characters or differently abled characters to mainstream TV shows counts as aspirational representation, then maybe highlighting respectful and responsible police actions counts as the same. Dan Abrams, the host of “Live PD,” has stated that his show presents a compelling argument for police transparency and officer body cams. True enough. However, the cancellation of “Live PD” came just a day after it was revealed that 40-year-old Javier Ambler—who is black—died in Texas last year after sheriff’s deputies repeatedly used stun guns on him. The incident was recorded by “Live PD” cameramen, but never aired. The network eventually erased the footage, which some observers found troubling. It is the show’s policy to erase footage shortly after airing, so that police cannot rely on it to prosecute people. That’s a logical enough policy of neutrality—but this incident points up the morally and legally confusing gray area of police cam footage shows in the first place. Those on camera do not consent to have themselves filmed. (“Live PD” relies on the “public space” laws regarding privacy.) Broadcasting images of people being arrested live on TV can have a serious impact on the idea of “innocent until proven guilty.” And many communities do not have much input as to whether the shows film in their jurisdiction. (Albuquerque Mayor Martin Chavez famously “banned” “Cops” from Albuquerque back in 2001.)
In the end it’s probably best to admit that police reality shows like “Cops” and “Live PD” aren’t the ideal way to represent how we want law enforcement to function in America. Maybe less time watching what’s happening on our TVs and more time looking at what’s happening on our streets is a start.