John Langley, Creator Of Reality TV Pioneer 'Cops,' Dies At 78

John Langley, the television producer who created a reality television sensation with the long-running series “Cops,” died on Saturday of a heart attack during an off-road race in Baja, Mexico. He was 78.

An Arresting Concept: Langley was born in Oklahoma City in 1943 and raised in Los Angeles. He served in the U.S. Army from 1961 to 1963 in an intelligence unit and later received a B.A. in English and an M.A. in literature and composition from California State University, Dominguez Hills.

Langley teamed with Malcolm Barbour on the direction of the documentaries “Cocaine Blues” (1983) and “American Expose: Who Murdered JFK?” (1988), and the pair co-wrote the low-budget feature film “P.O.W.: The Escape” (1986) starring David Carradine.

Langley and Barbour successfully pitched “Cops” to the Fox Broadcasting Network FOX in 1988, when the Writers Guild of America was on strike. The cinema verité documentary-style of “Cops” did not require scripts, thus offering the network a series that did not require union writers.

“Cops” premiered in March 1989 and became an instant success. For television viewers who only knew about police work from narrative dramatic shows, the reality television approach to the investigation of criminal activity was more exciting than the scripted dramas.

“Cops” ran for 32 seasons and more than 1,000 episodes. Fox canceled the series in 2013 and Langley switched the program to Spike TV, now Paramount Television, a division of ViacomCBS VIAC.

The series was canceled in the U.S. in June 2020 in the aftermath of the protests and riots that followed the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody, although production on new episodes began in September 2020 to fulfill contractual obligations for overseas television networks.

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Beyond “Cops”: “Cops” would create a wave of reality television programming following different aspects of law enforcement, ranging from the inner-city homicide investigations of “The First 48” to the efforts by Maine and New England game wardens to prevent poaching and habitat destruction in “North Woods Law.”

Langley would continue producing crime-focused programming including “Inside American Jail” and “Las Vegas Stings,” along with the feature films “Brooklyn’s Finest” (2009) and “Leaves of Grass” (2009). But none of his subsequent productions had the same impact with audiences as “Cops.”

In an interview with the Television Academy Foundation, Langley admitted surprise at the course of his career.

“I’m a kid of the 60s,” he explained. “I’m sort of anti-authoritarian by nature. If you told me I was going to do a show about cops, I would have said, ‘What am I going to call it, ‘Pigs’?”

Photo screenshot of the opening credits to "Cops" courtesy of WRCB-TV.

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