clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

The truth behind the TV show Cops

It’s the longest-running reality show on television. Why?

When it premiered in 1989, Cops presented itself as a raw, unscripted look at policing in the US. Down to its iconic theme song, Cops has remained more or less the same since: an unfussy purveyor of “Bad Boys” on American TV screens since the first Bush presidency. The show has been on longer than The Simpsons, and as it begins its 31st season this year, it holds the title as the longest-running primetime show in the US.

The show has no actors, no narration, no music, and it’s filmed entirely with handheld cameras trained on police units throughout the country. Despite its stripped-down production value, the show has always managed to draw an audience — primarily by packing the episodes full of police chases, drug busts, and other criminal antics. Driving that success are numerous law enforcement officers who are not only willing but eager to go on the show. Why?

The show is run by producers who profit from filming situations that can be humiliating, violent or intense in other ways. And given this unscripted — and potentially image-damaging — format, it might seem odd that police would choose to participate. That is, until you realize how this show gets made.

For more than a year, the team behind the podcast Running From Cops has been researching the show. In this video, Vox worked with them to examine the reasons police choose to participate in Cops. To learn what they are, start by watching the video above, then check out the podcast.

You can find this video and all of Vox’s other videos on our YouTube channel. And if you’re interested in supporting our video journalism, you can become a member of the Vox Video Lab on YouTube.