It's Time for A&E to Reinvent Itself (Again)

The granddaddy of basic cable finds itself at another crossroads.
  • A&E has built its brand around true crime of one sort or another for the better part of the last three decades, from Bill Kurtis (left) in the 90s, to Dan Abrams (middle) in the 2010s,
    A&E has built its brand around true crime of one sort or another for the better part of the last three decades, from Bill Kurtis (left) in the 90s, to Dan Abrams (middle) in the 2010s,
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    With the possible exception of BET, no cable channel has made less of its tremendous potential over the years than A&E. Formed in cable’s infancy in 1984 from a merger of two networks, one called Arts and one called Entertainment, A&E spent the Eighties trying to live up to its mission. There were shows about dance, music, travel, live comedy. Peter Graves hosted Biography, one-hour profiles of artists and (mostly) entertainers. A&E acquired Sherlock Holmes and other series from the BBC — so many shows, in fact, that TV Guide called the channel BBC West. Politicians questioned the need to keep funding public broadcasting when channels like A&E, Discovery and CNN seemed perfectly capable of doing PBS’s job.

    And then the ratings came in. By the early 1990s A&E’s co-owners, Hearst and Disney, were moving away from the A and looking desperately for anything that could E. That’s when they found that crime pays.

    Bill Kurtis, the square-jawed Chicago news anchor, began taking over A&E’s prime-time schedule in 1991 with documentary-style programs about murders and other violent crimes. From a state-of-the-art virtual studio that let him do multiple shows in the same space, Kurtis presented such A&E staples as American Justice, Cold Case Files, L.A. Detectives, and his signature show, Investigative Reports, which A&E stripped nightly, overtaking Biography (which was getting kicked to its own minor channel anyway).

    The network that once produced a documentary called Dogs hit it big with Dog the Bounty Hunter, a reality show that made a star of Duane “Dog” Chapman, who profited off the country’s broken cash-bail system and did a poor job of hiding his contempt for Black people. Gene Simmons, another piece of work, got a reality show on A&E. The calls to London for high-class programming ceased as unscripted programming completely took over. A beautifully-done drama called 100 Centre Street, which showed the criminal-justice system as a flawed institution run by humans, was canceled by A&E after one year.

    Yes, there have been highlights. A&E’s IndieFilms division provided crucial funding and a platform to worthy docs like Jesus Camp, Happy Valley, and Life, Animated. I thought Hoarders was a good concept for a reality show, though Intervention was better. But the addiction to quick-hit ratings led A&E to hoard more and more true crime shows, so it was perhaps inevitable that they would land on a show inspired by the most prolific crime show of all time, and I don’t mean Law & Order.

    From its debut at the dawning of the reality TV era in 1989 until 2013, COPS was a staple of the Fox network lineup, consistently winning both its Saturday-night time periods with edited, formulaic, voyeuristic drive-alongs with local police. Justice advocates protested the show for decades, saying it drove home a narrative of predominantly white cops protecting law-abiding citizens from poor people of color. But as 2017 dawned and the 1000th episode of COPS aired on Spike TV (now the Paramount Network), there seemed no end in sight.

    Inevitably, A&E came up with a COPS of its own — Live PD. Hosted by ABC legal analyst Dan Abrams, Live PD did COPS one better by broadcasting its drive-alongs in real time from such crime hotspots as Missoula, Montana, and Springfield, Missouri. Frequently the top-rated cable show on Friday and Saturday nights, Live PD spawned several spinoffs and zillions of views for its clip reels on YouTube.

    And then George Floyd was killed. The effects of his death are still reverberating through our culture as I write this, but surely one of the quickest and most dramatic results was the decision by Paramount to cancel COPS. That was not such a big deal; the show is over 30 years old and will live on in reruns, which are running 24/7 on their own PlutoTV channel (which ViacomCBS owns, along with COPS). But then came the stunner — A&E’s decision to cancel Live PD and all of its spinoffs, a huge deal since those programs filled a lot of real estate on A&E’s lineup.

    The blowback was swift, as A&E’s primetime viewership was cut in half the next week. That news was celebrated by right-wing websites with headlines like “Get Woke, Go Broke.” Alt-right media interprets any concessions to the Black Lives Movement as a sign of moral weakness. “Ironically, the show promoted police transparency, one of the reforms championed by BLM and others, by following officers on their rounds in cities across the country,” declared The Federalist. That canard has long been refuted by studies that found people who watch shows like COPS and Live PD believe their communities to be more crime-infested than they actually are.

    As with the removal of Confederate statues, cancelling Live PD was an overreaction brought on by years of inaction. Abrams and A&E took no responsibility for the messaging being sent out by their programming, which if anything escalated the same damaging narratives about people of color that COPS had trafficked in for decades. Marijuana busts are at the heart of the mass incarceration problem, yet Live PD cops made drama out of finding bags of weed. Even seasoned cops complained that Live PD was doing them no favors with its distorted picture of law enforcement.

    After Floyd’s death, A&E quickly pulled episodes of Live PD. A week later, it pulled the plug. “This is a critical time in our nation’s history and we have made the decision to cease production on Live PD,” the network said in a statement. “Going forward, we will determine if there is a clear pathway to tell the stories of both the community and the police officers whose role it is to serve them. And with that, we will be meeting with community and civil rights leaders as well as police departments.”

    I’ve long thought that crime TV was overdue for a course correction. So many people have been wrongfully convicted on spurious evidence by political prosecutors and judges behaving badly, can’t anyone squeeze some drama out of the other side of the courtroom? Well, now is A&E’s chance to do just that. With one-third of all Black men in America having a felony conviction on their records, mostly for non-violent offenses, that’s a bunch of viewers and their families that would welcome a revamped, reformed Live PD. It will take creativity, because no one’s really doing this right now, outside of perhaps Netflix. But it was A&E’s long habit of favoring cheap, expedient programming that got them into this mess. Getting out will require innovation, imagination and, dare I say it, art.

    Aaron Barnhart has written about television since 1994, including 15 years as TV critic for the Kansas City Star.

    TOPICS: A&E, Cops, Live PD, Bill Kurtis, Dan Abrams