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TV Series

Televising Crime Fact and Fiction

Vicky Munro, University of Minnesota


Some crime would make more compelling television than others. For example, in a single bank office, an armed robbery by a vicious gunman can be more compelling a story than the loan officer who is quietly embezzling millions from behind a desk for a decade. Both are serious crimes against society, punishable by severe sentences, but one makes more dramatic and entertaining television than the other. (Jack Breslin, America’s Most Wanted, 162)

nypd badgeThe extent of programming on television that has content dealing with some aspect of crime is overwhelming. Programs that feature fictional cops and/or lawyers have been popular since the early days of television and continue today with shows like NYPD BlueLaw and OrderDiagnosis Murder, and Brooklyn South. Older shows continue to appear as reruns and include sitcoms dealing with law enforcement such as Andy Griffith andBarney Miller, and a range of other cop shows representing different eras in television history such asMagnum P.I., CannonMannixHill Street Blues and Miami Vice. Fictional crime movies as well as those based on true cases add to the picture. The number of non-fiction shows with crime content has increased over the past decade. In addition to what viewers get on the news throughout the day, there are television “magazines,” talk shows, specials and the “reality” based shows that include actual footage from police and rescue work, and court trials.

The Dragnet Formula

dragnetLooking back over the history of crime shows on television, the roots of the current “reality-based” cop shows are evident. NBC’s 1936-1957 radio showGangbusters, was made into a television show in the early 1950s. “As in the radio Gangbusters, the episodes were primitive docudramas, ‘taken from actual police and FBI files.’” (David Marc, Demographic Vistas, 73). At the end of each show a photograph of someone from the Most Wanted list was shown asking anyone knowing the whereabouts of the suspect to phone the local police, the FBI or Gangbusters. The television version lasted only 18 months and was cancelled because of the popularity of Dragnet, with which it had been alternating every other week. Dragnet, produced by Jack Webb, was critically acclaimed as television’s first “realistic” cop show and was the first to win an Emmy. It lasted from the 1951-52 season until 1958-59. It’s hallmark was this supposed realism, with its cases, like those of Gangbusters, taken from actual police files. The hero ofDragnet, Sergeant Joe Friday, provided a “relentless crimefighting consciousness” that “left little room for sympathy for the twisted vermin who opposed the public order.”(Marc, 75) The show constantly reminded viewers of the reality of what they were watching. “What you are about to see is true…” Dragnet‘s view of the world in general and crime in particular was a paranoid one where the forces of evil were constantly held at bay only by the relentless efforts of men like Joe Friday.

tvm squadOther shows using Dragnet‘s successful formula followed: Highway PatrolM SquadThe Lineup, and Justice (whose cases were taken from the National Legal Aid Society’s files). Dragnet was later resurrected by Webb as Dragnet 67, updating the “twisted vermin” to hippies, revolutionaries and drug users (marijuana and LSD in the late 1960′s). Webb also produced Adam-12 which premiered in 1978 and provided a “day on the job” look at police work by two clean-cut officers. Webb’s Hawaii Five-0, which ran from 1968-80, was the longest continuously running police show on television.

streets of sfQuinn Martin’s The Untouchables provided viewers with more “real cases,” this time from the files of the FBI. The high rate of violence contained in the show was largely responsible for Congressional investigations into the effects of television violence during the early 1960s, a debate that continues today. Martin produced other crime shows such asThe FugitiveFBICannonThe Streets of San Francisco, and Barnaby Jones. Martin’s crime fighters were conservative and like Webb’s, battled evil with a “relentless seriousness.”(Marc, 82)

From Good v Evil to Healthy v Sick

starskyAaron Spelling produced a number of crime shows in the 1960s and 1970s that moved from a world of “good vs. evil” to a “healthy vs. sick” outlook on criminals. Spelling’s theme, current with the politics of the time and the trends in rehabilitation programming, community corrections and medical models of crime, was rehabilitation.(Marc, 86) The Mod Squad (1968) with its ex-hippy cops and fatherly Captain Greer was a Spelling product. Marc points out that in Spelling’s world, criminals were more to be pitied than held in contempt. Other Spelling shows were Starsky and HutchCharlie’s AngelsHart to Hart,The Rookies, and S.W.A.T. These shows moved well away from the studied realism of the earlier shows taken from real case files and showed the cop more as a social worker than a “relentless crime fighter.”

Crime shows over the decades of the 1960s and 1970s became more comic with the bad guys being fought by the likes of the Incredible Hulk, the Bionic Woman and the Six Million Dollar Man. Actual cop sitcoms developed in the 1970s as well: Barney MillerFish, and Holmes and Yoyo for example.

Reality-Based Cop Shows

hsbWith the conservative swing in politics and criminal justice, and the focus on crime as a major national problem in the 1980s, realism in cop shows started creeping back in. 1981 brought Hill Street Blues which combined elements of a sitcom, a soap opera and a traditional crime show. The issues dealt with onHill Street Blues were serious and even main characters were allowed to die. The show looked at crime in society but also at the lives of the officers and what went on in the station house. Joseph Wambaugh’s Police Story featured a hero cop caught between the world of criminals and the abuse of a public aware of the shortcomings of the police.

By the end of the 1980s, the reality based cop shows were beginning to appear, starting with those that drew their cases from police and FBI files to those that reenacted real crimes using actors and sometimes actual victims and their families. These were upstaged by shows that provided footage from cameras riding along in police cars or emergency vehicles and in courtrooms across the country.

TV Crime Shows and the Surveillance Society

seccamIn The Electronic Eye: The Rise of Surveillance Society, David Lyon looks at the ever increasing monitoring of ordinary people in their everyday routines as technology has become more sophisticated and computer databases have increased their capacities and reach. The daily business of living from credit card purchases to phone calls to where we travel is mediated and documented by an “electronic eye.” Lyon’s premise is that surveillance is a central feature of modernity, and it is progressively replacing physical coercion as a means of maintaining order. Characteristics of the new surveillance include the fact that it is frequently involuntary, prevention is a major concern (as evidenced in video monitors in stores and parking lots, bar codes on library books, items imbedded in merchandise that trigger alarms), it is capital rather than labor intensive, and it involves de-centralized self-policing. “It triggers a shift from identifying specific subjects to categorical suspicion.”(Lyon, 53)

Lyon links the current surveillance society back to 1791 and Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon prison which operated under the idea that constant surveillance or at least the impression of constant surveillance by unseen watchers would cause the rational response of good behavior. (However, as can be seen from current video footage of people well aware that a camera is pointed in their direction, it is impossible to count on what people will do while being watched, and the population that causes the most concern, the criminal element, is not what one would describe as a rational population.)

Beyond the general surveillance of the public, technology has provided electronic means of policing and guarding potential and convicted criminals. Police cars come equipped with video cameras, convicted criminals are kept at home with electronic bracelets. In Los Angeles state of the art electronics and high-technology policing ability divide the affluent public from the criminalized poor. The “spectrum of suspicion” has broadened and camcorders have become a way of life with the results being shown on television programs that range from America’s Funniest Home Videos to the nightly news to the reality cop shows.

rodney kingThe Rodney King case revolved around footage from a camera held by an ordinary citizen and pointed at the police. The country took the footage as truth and the ensuing footage from the riots that followed the verdict in the King case show just how strong an impression the original images had made.

This move into a surveillance society raises any number of privacy issues that involve what you can film, what permissions you need from those who are your subjects and what can be done with the film. These issues are permeating the reality cop shows and the ones that mix footage from a variety of rescue/emergency response teams as will be discussed. The video footage from police car video cameras or cameras held by television cameramen give an air of authority to the surveillance that can mask some of the important issues surrounding privacy and proper police procedure.   Increases in technology have been used to increase the range of where those behind the machine can see, and this ability has created in the public a desire to see and participate in many details of others’ lives. This is particularly true when it comes to moments of friction such as those involved in crimes.

America’s Most Wanted

most wantedFox Broadcasting produces America’s Most Wanted, a weekly show that profiles crimes with missing or unknown suspects, and asks the audience to help in capturing these fugitives. The show was piloted on 7 Fox owned television stations in February 1988, debuted nationally two months later on 125 affiliates of Fox Broadcasting and 4 independent Canadian stations, and continues today with a weekly hour length program. Labelled as an “interactive crime-fighting TV show,” America’s Most Wanted aims to tap into Americans’ fascination and frustration with crime in order to get viewers not only to watch the show but to call in with any information on the suspects profiled. The show is hosted by John Walsh, whose 6 year old son Adam was kidnapped and murdered in 1981. After Adam’s murder, Walsh turned into an advocate for missing children, pushing for the creation of national centers for information sharing and legislation to give protection and assistance to missing children and their families. “Walsh has been instrumental in the passage of more than 500 pieces of legislation, including a bill that provides the first central nation-wide listing of missing children.” Walsh makes no bones about his feelings towards those profiled on the show, using labels such as “creeps,” “dirt-bags,” “nuts,” and “sons-of-bitches.” “‘I don’t look at it as a TV show,’ Walsh says. ‘I look at it as if it were a job as important as addressing the legislatures.’” (Jane Marion, TV Guide, 18 March 1989). Walsh’s attitude is reflected by those producing and starring in the shows, in how the reenactments are formulated, how suspects are portrayed.

Where news cameras often arrive on the scene of a crime after the event, the crime reenactments onAmerica’s Most Wanted aim to show the horror and passion of violent crime as it happens. “It was an exercise in the documentation of human passions and a chance for the audience to experience the emotional impact of crime – the acts, the  perpetrators, the victims, the police.”(Breslin, America’s Most Wanted, 17) In addition to asking for the audience’s help in capturing fugitives, America’s Most Wanted‘s focus on the criminal act itself was seen as “an important way to educate society to the reality of crime.”(Breslin, 95) The show pushes for an emotional response to crime from the audience; with the focus on the moment of the crime, which is often showed a number of times as a case is discussed and the emphasis put on the victim’s fear and the brutality of the incident, the audience is conditioned to respond with emotion rather than thought. Ron Scalera, the on-air promotion producer pushed the idea that the audience can actually do something positive “about the most threatening problem in American Society, which is crime and fugitives at-large.”(Breslin, 114) The cases given priority were repeat violent offenders likely to strike again, cases brought by victims or individual police officers focusing on a single fugitive, those with available photographic/visual evidence and above all, cases that can be made into compelling television. This overarching framework narrows the focus considerably of what will be chosen for the show, and ensures that the focus remains on street crime, on action filled and violent crimes which are not necessarily the greatest threat facing the American public but merely the most television worthy.

most wantedAmerica’s Most Wanted‘s success rate in capturing fugitives contributed much to its early popularity and the plethora of copycat shows that cropped up soon after its debut. The first criminal profiled, David James Roberts, was captured four days later. Fox was getting an average of 500 calls for each segment (usually 2-3 segments were used in each hour program). John List, who murdered his wife, mother and three children, was a fugitive for 18 years (during which time he did not re-offend, making him perhaps not the great threat to the public that he was portrayed). He was captured 11 days after being profiled on the show. By the first anniversary of the show, 45 out of 159 of those profiled on the show had been captured as a direct result of the show, and 7 others had surrendered after being profiled.

Copyright © 2002 Vicky Munro

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