Perhaps one reason why America’s national reckoning on police brutality took so long to arrive is because TV is conditioning its citizens to view cops as reliable heroes, reported Quartz.
Of the 69 scripted television dramas that aired on the big four US broadcast networks (CBS, NBC, Fox, and ABC) in the last year-and-a-half, 35 were about law enforcement, according to a Quartz analysis. CBS was responsible for 16 of those on its own. About 70% of the network’s dramatic programming from 2019-2020 were about cops.
Quartz defined cop shows as any scripted TV drama in which the main characters are law enforcement officers or their allies—including the FBI, private detectives, and military police—and their jobs are integral to the story (think CSI, Blue Bloods, or Chicago PD). The few ongoing cop comedies, like NBC’s Brooklyn Nine-Nine, were not included. Neither were reality shows, such as Cops or Live PD.
For comparison, Quartz included the scripted drama lineups of HBO, a premium cable channel, and the CW, a network aimed at younger viewers. Both had far lower percentages of cop shows than those of the four primary US broadcast networks.
Numerous academic studies over many years have showed that viewing cop shows can leaded to warped views of the criminal justice system and policing. A 2015 study by St. John Fisher College found viewers of these shows are more likely to believe police departments are much more effective in solving crimes than they are in reality. The same study also found that viewers were more likely to believe police misconduct is not a problem, and that officers only use force when necessary.
A 2018 joint report by the racial justice group Color of Change and the University of Southern California found American police shows tend to normalize injustice in the minds’ of viewers. “The Crime TV genre, which reaches hundreds of millions of people in America and worldwide, advances debunked ideas about crime, a false hero narrative about law enforcement, and distorted representations about Black people, other people of color and women,” the report said. It also pointed out that the creators, writers, and show runners of these shows are overwhelmingly male and white.
Not only are there dozens of cop shows across US networks, but several of them are among the most-watched series each year. Cop shows accounted for four of the top 10 and 17 of the top 50 most popular TV series last year, according to Nielsen. NCIS, which has aired on CBS since 2003, averaged 15.3 million viewers each episode—more than ESPN’s weekly National Football League games.
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