John Langley, the mind behind COPS and the birth of reality TV, has died at 78. According to Variety, the cause of death is a reported heart attack while visiting Baja, Mexico. His representatives confirmed his passing and added that he'd been competing in the Coast to Coast Ensenada-San Felipe 250 off-road race.
While COPS was canceled in the U.S. in 2020 amid the George Floyd protests, but continuing on overseas, it had run in the States 32 seasons. The reality TV series was a staple of the FOX network's Saturday night lineup alongside America's Most Wanted. The theme song, "Bad Boys," by Inner Circle, is an instantly recognizable part of TV history.
Fox canceled the show in 2013, opening the door for its second life on Spike, later the Paramount Network. The show was criticized for delivering solely from the police's point of view, especially in the wake of the George Floyd slaying and protests. COPS was also compared unfavorably to Live PD and the controversies surrounding behind-the-scenes practices. This includes coercion to sign waivers and removing any content that frames police in a negative light.
Still, in its heyday, it was a force, and Langley was part of the reason. As Variety notes, Langley and Malcolm Barbour worked to get the show on the air at Fox following the 1988 Writers Guild strike. From there it would become a cultural force, earning four Emmy nominations.
A Variety piece in 2013 covered Langley being honored by the NATPE, where he shared the concerns by producers and the network over people actually agreeing to appear on the series. "The network thought it was a legal nightmare," Langley said at the time. He then revealed that the concerns were unwarranted and people soon became excited to appear on the show, even humming the theme song to the show as they were being taken to jail.
Outside of Cops, Langley worked on other reality precursors like the 1983 documentary Cocaine Blues, American Vice: The Doping of a Nation in 1986, and several other series cut from the Cops cloth. He was also a producer on the film Brooklyn's Finest by director Antoine Fuqua. In 2009, he talked about his childhood and how his career would have thrown that era for a loop.
"I'm a kid of the '60s. 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?" Langley said at the time.