As America grapples with issues concerning law enforcement, A&E’s latest gritty docuseries takes viewers to the front lines of policing in multiple cities, in real time.
Policing in America has been a hot-button issue as of late, in the wake of such events as the killings of unarmed black men in multiple American cities, and violence against police officers in Dallas, Texas and Baton Rouge, Louisiana.
Partially as a response, A&E hoped to address the perceived lack of transparency among the country’s police forces last fall with Big Fish Entertainment’s Live PD, a weekly live docuseries that captured the action of six police departments across America in real time.
In its first season, the series pulled 30 live feeds from six cities across the country in a bid to offer an unfiltered look into a typical Friday night for men and women in blue. Those feeds were then transmitted via 4G technology to a New York-based studio where ABC News chief legal analyst Dan Abrams, alongside Dallas Police Department detectives Rich Emberlin and Kevin Jackson, provided audiences with insight into what they’re viewing in real time, offering an inside take on each live incident.
The series premiered on Oct. 28 to 776,000 viewers in the U.S., with a 0.3 rating among 18-49 year olds, and was initially slated for an eight-episode run of 120 minutes each. It evolved into nine episodes, with some at three hours.
According to the network, ahead of the finale of part one of the first season, it had averaged 840,000 total viewers per week, regularly outperforming its time slot by 53% with total viewers, as of Dec. 15.
That gradual progression in viewership enticed A+E Networks’ flagship channel to formally extend Live PD for an additional 10 episodes, prolonging the Friday night series for a total run of 21 episodes that will stretch into the spring. The extended first season returned to A&E’s airwaves on Jan. 6 after a brief holiday hiatus. Two extra episodes have been scheduled to take place Saturday night, Feb. 4 and Feb. 11.
“We think we’re on to something,” Elaine Frontain Bryant, exec VP and head of programming at A&E, tells realscreen.
“What I’ve seen, week over week, is the show just gets better and we’ve seen the way the ratings have gone which are pretty steadily [up] – people are catching on to it. They’re interested; it’s social. It’s been a trending topic many different weeks.
“What we’ve set out to do, we’ve accomplished – why wouldn’t we keep at it?” she adds. “Certainly, I’m hopeful that there is a season two.”
Social media, and Twitter in particular, has emerged as a unique focus group for the network. The digital news and social networking platform has allowed the show’s creators to refine it on a minute-to-minute basis based on real-time feedback from an engaged audience.
“We now try to go to the studio only when it gives impactful discussions, more takeaway intel on what just happened in the field or in a package that we’ve pre-taped,” Frontain Bryant explains. “We realized that less is more with the studio and it has to have a purpose.”
“Each week we’re digging in to all that data and trying to understand how the viewer is responding to it or what they’re responding to and how we can dial certain things up and certain things down,” adds Dan Cesareo, Big Fish Entertainment’s president and executive producer.
“If you’ve been watching the show, you’ve really seen it evolve over the first eight episodes,” he says. “In an ideal world, I would have done weeks more of run-throughs, but those are cost prohibitive and at some point you have to play the game and go live and really work on making those tweaks and adjustments.”
It was in those early weeks of diving head first into live programming that the Big Fish team developed the instincts that dictated how long producers stayed on a particular story, when to leave it and when to return – all in real time.
Week after week, the show’s pacing and storytelling have matured as the crosscountry teams hit their stride, Frontain Bryant and Cesareo maintain.
“One of the interesting things about this series is the viewer has had to adjust how they watch television for this show, because they’re used to these very neat, clean packets of content that always pay off,” the Big Fish president says. “This is an extension of the live content that’s being broadcast on the web, but it’s a much higher-end experience with a much more polished version of storytelling.”
Cohesion was an integral consideration for the teams involved with Live PD, particularly as the series embedded itself with new law enforcement offices in additional cities – an important move in highlighting a cross-section of policing in America.
On Dec. 9, for instance, crews went live in Kentucky with the Warren County Sheriffs, covering the Bowling Green area of approximately 600 square miles.
Production teams, meanwhile, have lingered in each maiden city, implanted with the gang unit in Tulsa, Oklahoma; the Arizona Department of Public Safety, focusing on border patrol and narcotics; the Utah State Highway Patrol, battling a massive drug trafficking corridor; Bridgeport, Connecticut, one of America’s most dangerous small cities; in Walton County, Florida; and in Richland County, South Carolina, home to the South’s second largest sheriffs department that covers a broad range of areas and a diversity of crimes.
While the topic of transparency is particularly poignant in the U.S., societies worldwide experience myriad issues with law enforcement and civil disobedience, making Live PD adaptable in just about every territory. But how would the subject matter translate internationally?
“Honestly, I don’t know yet,” admits Frontain Bryant.
“I’m making a show that resonates right now for America in late 2016, and it is resonating – it’s something that people talk about.”
The situation that’s going on in six different, disparate regions of the country is fascinating to watch. I couldn’t tell you if England or Australia have the same issues.
“I’m not as intimately aware of all of the conversations, but I do know that several different markets are interested in exploring the format,” she adds. “There’s a lot going on [in America] and each region has to figure out if it’s the same situation for them.”
A home to various gritty docuseries, including the long-running Intervention, The First 48, and, more recently, Leah Remini: Scientology and the Aftermath and 60 Days In, A&E is looking to lead the genre into new territory.
“Live PD has that element of, ‘What? How are they going to do that?’ First it was the technology and then it became, ‘How do you show that stuff?’ Now we’ve done it and I’m constantly proud of it,” Frontain Bryant says.
“It’s respectfully done, in a way that we take seriously, with gravitas and respect for the individuals that are part of it.”
This story initially appeared in realscreen’s March/April issue