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He’s Broadening His Crime Wave

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Back when he was working toward a doctorate in the philosophy of aesthetics and teaching at UC Irvine, John Langley seemed an unlikely candidate to preside over a criminal empire.

Yet the producer is doing precisely that, parlaying “Cops"--the cinema verite prime-time series heading into its 13th season on Fox--into additional crime-related programming as well as an ambitious new Web site, Crime.com, which Langley has launched in conjunction with the Court TV network.

At a time when so-called “reality” programming has become network television’s flavor of the moment, “Cops” has remained an unsung staple of Fox’s lineup, forming a programming block with “America’s Most Wanted” that simply won’t die, outlasting half a dozen entertainment presidents and several attempts to pare the shows down or eliminate them.

“We’re old hat. We’re institutionalized. We’ve become positively respectable,” Langley said, laughing at the thought, in his Santa Monica office. “In the early days we were controversial, edgy--all of those things. That got lost in the shuffle over the years because of all of the imitators.”

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The idea that crime can become its own distinct programming brand provides a notion of just how finely categories will be sliced and diced in the Internet age.

Langley, who once aspired to establishing a crime TV channel, concedes he isn’t sure where this trend is heading but wants to plant his flag now and be there when the smoke clears from the much-anticipated convergence of television and computers.

Drawing on Langley’s vast library of “Cops” footage, Crime.com, https://www.crime.com, also will feature original programming culled from a vast network of contributors around the country.

“It’s not as fully digested or analyzed,” Art Bell, Court TV’s executive vice president of programming and marketing, observed in comparing the site to his own network’s Internet presence. “It’s raw footage. This is more ‘You are there.’ ”

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Crime.com has already spurred controversy by carrying footage from a “jail cam” in Maricopa County, Ariz., which the local sheriff, Joe Arpaio, has characterized as a crime deterrent. Civil libertarians, by contrast, have expressed outrage about the cameras violating the rights of suspects.

As he enters this new phase, Langley freely admits he wasn’t following any grand design when he started out. A onetime English student who intended to become a professor, he stumbled into documentary films while working on his dissertation. He later produced specials for Geraldo Rivera before introducing “Cops” with his former partner, Malcolm Barbour, in 1989 on the then-fledgling Fox.

“I never set out to be in the crime space,” he said. “I’m a documentarian at heart. I’m a producer. I like to make shows and direct them. Sometimes we never know what our path is until we’re on it. I ended up doing a lot of crime-oriented stuff, and as a consequence I’m now ‘Crime, c’est moi.’ I get a chuckle out of it.”

“Cops” was considered groundbreaking, an unscripted program without a host or narrator. (Both “Cops” and “Most Wanted” came about in part to fill a void created by the 1988 Writers Guild of America strike, which could come full circle next year if the guild goes on strike again, as is widely expected.)

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After hundreds of ride-alongs, “Cops” finished the 1999-2000 TV season averaging about 8.4 million viewers and still frequently winning its Saturday time slot. The show also has spawned popular videos containing footage deemed too raw for broadcast television and has been a success in syndication, though Langley recently filed suit against 20th Century Fox regarding his share of those profits, mirroring actions brought against the studio by “NYPD Blue” producer Steven Bochco and “The X-Files” star David Duchovny.

“It’s about as pure as it gets in terms of documentary filmmaking,” Langley said regarding the show. “I didn’t invent cinema verite, but I did sort of inaugurate video verite for network television. There had never been a show on network television that had no narrator, no host, no script. This was the first time this worked on television, and it continues to work because of its purity.”

As one of reality programming’s elder statesmen, Langley takes exception to lumping “Cops” in with every other program that doesn’t feature professional actors.

“Everybody throws everybody in the so-called ‘reality’ arena in the same pot,” he said. “I think there’s a world of difference between ‘Survivor’ and ‘Cops,’ or ‘Big Brother’ and ‘Cops.’ . . .

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“It’s just documentary television in endless cycles refreshing itself. Even the shows today aren’t really startlingly new. ‘Who Wants to Be a Millionaire'--hey, you ever hear of ‘The $64,000 Question’? It’s just a more glittery package, gussied up for our time and space. That’s pretty much true of all these shows.”

Asked to assess CBS’ much-discussed new summer “reality” entries, Langley said, “ ‘Big Brother’s’ like watching paint dry. It’s not a very interesting dramatic show. ‘Survivor,’ on the other hand, is interesting. It’s good TV [because] it engages you on one level or another. . . . It’s basically a game show.”

*

Langley is also quick to point out that he doesn’t endorse everything the police do, though his own views about the percentage of corrupt or abusive cops have changed--in favor of the police--thanks to his association with the show.

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As for suggestions that the glut of crime programming on television fosters a sense of fear that runs counter to the national trend--which indicates a decline in violent crime statistics--Langley said, “The good news is it’s probably safer in this country than ever. The bad news is crime is democratic and will be with us forever.”

Crime.com will tap into some of those concerns, with everything from travel warnings to crime statistics and background checks available via the site.

“It’s a category with an incredible amount of interest,” said Rob Kenneally, a former Fox executive involved in conceiving Crime.com who is now executive vice president at ReplayTV.

Langley acknowledges that from his TV producer’s perspective, the Internet has a way to go before emerging as a true entertainment--as opposed to information--vehicle. His relationship with Court TV includes “Anatomy of a Crime,” a more conventional documentary format, and one of his goals is to use the Web site to incubate programming concepts that can be taken to more traditional media outlets.

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Though he may never come up with another idea as durable as “Cops"--few producers who stumble on one hit have an encore--Langley remains enthusiastic about long-term prospects for producers in the Internet age, even if it is helping relegate this one-time academic to a life of crime.

“At their best, reality TV and documentaries provoke thought. If you can do that, if you’re enhancing awareness, you’re fulfilling your mission,” he said. “That’s about as good as you can do in the media. I’m an old-fashioned humanist. I’m not trying to propagandize anyone. I want what I do to cause people to think.”

* “Cops” can be seen Saturday nights at 8 and 8:30 on Fox.


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