TV Long View: How Much Network TV Depends on Cop Shows

Crime-solving has been part of the TV landscape for the medium's entire history, but with calls to significantly change or cut such shows, The Hollywood Reporter examines how prevalent they are.
Courtesy of Networks
'Law & Order: SVU' (left), 'NCIS,' 'The Rookie'

Police officers and other law-enforcement types have been part of the TV landscape for virtually the entire history of the medium. The first TV crime-fighters came to the small screen in the late 1940s — and they've been on ever since, from Old West sheriffs to 21st century forensics experts.

Shows about police officers, detectives and other law enforcers made up nearly a fifth of the scripted shows on network TV in the 2019-20 season — which was on the low end of things over the past decade. Crime shows outnumber every other drama subgenre (family dramas, medical shows and the like) on the broadcast nets, and have for some time, and they're among the most-watched series on TV.

They're also at a reckoning point in popular culture. The nationwide wave of protests against police violence in the past month led directly to the cancellation of two docuseries about police, A&E's Live PD and Paramount Network's Cops. That's been accompanied by more than a few calls to either significantly change or reduce the number of shows that center cops.

"They normalize excessive force in a way that's glamorized, they normalize violations of the Constitution and surveillance in a way that's glamorized," said Arisha Hatch, vp and chief of campaigns for advocacy group Color of Change. The organization's Normalizing Injustice report, issued in January, noted that a large number of crime shows tend to implicitly endorse such bad behavior in the name of results, and law-enforcement characters are rarely held accountable for violations of people's constitutional rights.

Whether the numerous crime shows make the changes recommended in the report remains to be seen. A look at the data around cop shows, though, suggests they won't be going away even as they've declined some in number in recent years.

For the purposes of this analysis, The Hollywood Reporter defines "crime shows" as those where people in law enforcement are the central characters and a case to solve is the primary plot engine. The numbers below don't include legal dramas (a la CBS' All Rise or ABC's For Life), shows primarily about other first responders (Fox's 911, NBC's Chicago Fire, ABC's Station 19), spy and private-detective shows or series where main characters work in law enforcement but the central focus isn't their jobs (ABC's Emergence, NBC's Manifest).

In 2019-20, there were 19 crime shows on the broadcast networks, which represents just under 20 percent of the 97 scripted shows that aired during the September-to-May season. The number of shows was consistent with last season, but the percentage of crime dramas in 2018-19 was slightly lower as there was a slightly higher total (100) of all scripted shows.

The past two seasons have been on the low side of the 10-year average, which is about 22 percent. The peak was in the 2014-15 season, when 29 of 101 scripted series were crime shows.

Season All scripted shows Crime shows Crime shows as % of total
2019-20 97 19 19.6
2018-19 100 19 19
2017-18 107 22 20.5
2016-17 108 25 23.1
2015-16 99 25 25.3
2014-15 101 29 28.7
2013-14 102 21 20.6
2012-13 89 18 20.2
2011-12 98 22 22.4
2010-11 86 22 25.6

 

The reason they're so prevalent is because crime dramas are also very popular. They account for the two longest-running dramas currently on the air (Law & Order: SVU and NCIS) and seven of the 15 most-watched scripted series this past season.

With those types of numbers, both in viewership and in sheer volume, it's exceedingly unlikely that the crime show is on its deathbed. A&E's jettisoning of Live PD was a surprise in part because it's the cable network's top-rated show. To state the obvious, networks aren't usually inclined to get rid of their top-rated programs.

That bottom-line focus means crime shows will continue to live into the foreseeable future. Viewers may, however, be open to them adapting: In a recent THR/Morning Consult poll, 56 percent of respondents agreed with the idea that cop shows should change to "more accurately reflect policing in the United States."