Police work is portrayed on television more often than any other profession. It has been that way since the cowboys rode off into the television sunset. The difference now is that in a growing number of shows on television the police officers on the screen really carry guns, really chase drug-dealers through the streets, really save people's lives.
Real police officers and actors re-creating their lives are the stars of three weekly television series and often appear together in two others.
One series that touches on police work, NBC's Unsolved Mysteries, (Wednesday at 8) is regularly among the top-rated series in prime time. Another, CBS' Rescue 911, (Tuesday at 8) has increased steadily in popularity over the last year and is among that network's strongest programs. A third, CBS' Top Cops, was so popular as a short-run series over the summer that it has won a place in the network's regular-season prime-time schedule (Thursday at 8).
Fox Broadcasting carries the two other reality-cop shows: America's Most Wanted (Friday at 8), which tracks criminals at large and is responsible for the arrests of over 100 criminals, and Cops, (Saturday at 9) the most real of all the reality-cop shows, a weekly tour of duty on the streets with police officers from various American cities.
America's Most Wanted was the first Fox show to gain a strong national following, and it continues to be successful though less so than the programs on the major networks. The audience for Cops has never been large, but it has always been extremely loyal.
"People like reality," says Arnold Shapiro, the executive producer of Rescue 911. "They like heroes."
People also see a lot of real crime on television news, of course. Sonny Grosso, the executive producer of Top Cops, says that has a lot to do with why they are tuning in to see the real police taking some real (or at least re-created) action.
"People get inundated with all this harsh stuff on the news," says Grosso. "They want to see the crimes solved. They want to see that there are people out there doing something about all the criminality."
Viewers have always liked police shows, and Shapiro says they have become accustomed to seeing fictional police shows presented more realistically, especially in the years since Hill Street Blues rewrote the police-drama genre.
In Top Cops, actors re-create the story of a dramatic moment in the career of a real policemen or policewoman, who comments on the screen about what happened before, during and after the event.
Rescue 911 uses some real videotape of rescue efforts by the police (as well as fire and medical emergency personnel), along with re-creations of rescues.
Unsolved Mysteries and America's Most Wanted follow similar formats, which focus on the crimes, the criminals and the victims and bring the real police in occasionally. Cops takes a straightforward, cinema verite approach, following the real police in action.
Top Cops, which had a seven-week run this summer as an hourlong series on Wednesday nights, moved to Thursdays at 8 p.m. as a half-hour show. CBS wants Top Cops to take the heat from the shoot-out between The Cosby Show and The Simpsons in that time period.