Reality Godfathers: John Langley and Vin Di Bona

With their enduring hits, John Langley and Vin Di Bona made offers audiences couldn't refuse


John Langley
 
John Langley

Just renewed for a staggering 23rd season, the Fox franchise that Langley created with former producing partner Malcolm Barbour was like nothing else on TV when it premiered in 1989.

With its jittery camera work -- effective during the show's signature trailer-park chases -- and unprecedented level of access to law enforcement, "Cops" bridged traditional documentaries and the now-dominant reality TV genre.

It has also done massive business, especially on DVD, totaling "hundreds of millions of dollars," says Langley, who still actively oversees the show with son Morgan out of Langley Prods.' offices in Santa Monica. They're also jointly exec producing "Jail," currently airing on Spike TV.

Langley honed his interest in the criminal mind when he served with U.S. Army Intelligence and Security in Panama in the 1960s, after which he earned bachelor's and master's degrees in English. The Manhattan Beach native -- he still lives there with his wife of 35 years, Maggie -- is developing a show about one of his other many passions, off-road racing. In fact, Langley, Morgan and his other son, Zak, raced on a team that won the Baja 1,000 in 2009.

Of his reality show legacy, Langley says: "I certainly didn't invent verite, but I definitely helped commercialize it."



Vin Di Bona
 
Vin Di Bona

"People won't laugh at other people's misfortunes."

That's what the Dutch told Di Bona when the ebullient producer first pitched a TV show featuring amusing video clips to Europe's most prolific reality generators. "After the first person was hit in the groin, their theory went out the window," Di Bona notes.

Before he made human pratfalls must-see TV, the Cranston, R.I., native had different aspirations. In 1961, he changed his name to Johnny Lindy and headed to Nashville to record "My Arms." The ballad was a regional success.

After producing stints that included "Entertainment Tonight," Di Bona sold "AFHV" in summer 1989 to ABC, which scheduled it in the family-friendly Sunday night slot it has owned since its premiere that fall.

Di Bona still exec produces and directs and credits the show's reality for its enduring appeal. "Total authenticity," he says. "If we felt a video was fake, we wouldn't run it."

YouTube has only boosted "AFHV's" appeal. "We're getting about 1,800 entries a week now; that's four times what it used to be," says Di Bona, a classic car nut and antiques hound, who loves spending off-hours with his wife Erica and their three grandchildren -- being real, in other words.
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