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In 2013, Color Of Change members successfully pressured FOX to cancel COPS, bringing nearly 25 years of racist myth-making on network TV to an end.
For decades, one TV show led the way in painting a profoundly distorted and racist picture of crime, policing and the targets of policing. In this show’s distorted reality, the police were always portrayed as heroes, and usually white. The suspects were always portrayed as guilty, and usually Black. This show profited from blaming crime on Black people, turning the disinvestment and suffering in our communities into entertainment, and perpetuating the idea that there is something deeply wrong with Black culture, rather than with the failed “drug war” itself.
“COPS” was one of the very first so-called reality TV shows, which set a pattern for many shows to come, including the focus on grossly distorted portrayals of Black people, communities and culture. Well-established research shows that repeated inaccurate and dehumanizing portrayals on TV negatively influence people’s perception of Black people, leading them to treat Black people differently in real life—in their role as judges, teachers, doctors, employers or just neighbors.
When FOX put it on the air in 1989, COPS helped create an atmosphere of hysteria around crime and drugs in poor Black communities, and anxiety about Black culture itself. The inaccurate and racially-driven presentation of crime fed to TV viewers by COPS and other shows—lacking any context or real facts—was a big part of what created renewed and unchecked passion for the failed “tough on crime” policies of the 1990s, which put one out of every six Black men behind bars. The false narrative about Black communities as hopelessly dysfunctional also helped justify continued, dramatic disinvestment in Black communities.
In 2013, Color Of Change members successfully pressured FOX to cancel COPS, bringing its nearly 25-year run on network TV to an end.
Understanding that COPS was at a critical moment when it could either be renewed or cancelled by FOX, we launched a campaign designed to put pressure on the company from multiple directions. As thousands of Color Of Change members signed petitions demanding that FOX take COPS off the air, Color Of Change leadership began behind-the-scenes conversations with people at FOX, detailing our plans to escalate the public pressure.
When it was time to escalate, Color Of Change members stepped up to fund ads appearing in Hollywood industry publications. When the ads got rejected, we leveraged that moment to generate a new round of stories in the media, ultimately giving the ads much more exposure. Finally, we told FOX about our plans for a highly visible protest featuring Black leaders, to be staged in front of 20th Century Fox headquarters, during which we would deliver our petition. On the morning of the would-be protest, FOX announced that they were canceling COPS.
The show’s cancellation shifted attitudes in the media world about what is an acceptable and responsible way to cover crime and policing. As one of Color Of Change’s first major victories in the arena of popular culture and entertainment, the campaign helped create relationships with industry publications and industry decision-makers, setting the stage for an expansion of our work to transform the way Hollywood treats and portrays Black people, as did our winning campaign canceling another dehumanizing and exploitative show, All My Babies’ Mamas, before the Oxygen Network could even air its first episode.
Since the cancellation of COPS, we have heard from Hollywood insiders that executives are thinking more carefully about what they decide to put on the air, and wanting to work with organizations like Color Of Change to be much more responsible. We are developing relationships with content producers in Hollywood to help them not only move away from dehumanizing stereotypes, but also create rich and varied stories expressing accurate and nuanced representations of Black people.