The work of the police has come under tremendous scrutiny in the U.S. over the past few years, with the shootings of unarmed black men by cops leading to the birth of the Black Lives Matter movement. Then came the string of killings of police officers this past summer. In an environment where tensions run high, A&E tonight is launching Live PD, a weekly two-hour live documentary series that will show six police departments in action in real time. The network, which has tradition in documentary series, including the long-running Intervention and 2016 Emmy winner Born This Way, is looking to push the genre into new territory with the eight-episode Live PD, in which host Dan Abrams and two Dallas police detectives will comment on the live developments.
A&E’s general manager Rob Sharenow admits it has been hard to get people to understand what the show really is — he calls it “unmediated, live Cops with third-party journalistic context.” In an interview with Deadline, he talks about the challenges (and price tag) of mounting a live production involving police work in multiple locations around the country, whether there will be limits to what they can show, what Live PD means for the evolution of the A&E brand, and what is the future of once-signature reality series Duck Dynasty on the network, which has been going through rough times, trying to make a ratings turnaround.
DEADLINE: What was your first reaction when a live cop show was pitched to you?
SHARENOW: Well, it was brought to us by our production partners Big Fish, and frankly when the idea first surfaced to me, I actually didn’t think it would be possible; I didn’t think it would be logistically possible. I didn’t think any of the police forces around the country would participate in something like this, so I actually thought when we started to develop that I was sending my team and the producers on a fool’s errand. But it turns out, they came back with an overwhelming amount of police departments and municipalities that wanted to participate, which was really fascinating, and I think that was the first hurdle, knowing that it could be done and that we would get willing participation not one, not two, not three, not four, not five, not six, but many more cities around the country that wanted to do this.
DEADLINE: What was the motivation of those police departments that wanted to participate?
SHARENOW: There’s obviously a cultural conversation going on right now about policing in America. On the non-police side, there’s a call for transparency. But interestingly, there’s a call for transparency on the police side. They want the world to see what really goes on, and how they execute their job and what the realities that they’re up against and how they do it. It’s sort of a validating mechanism for them, and they feel that the transparency will really show the heroic duty they’re performing.
DEADLINE: What are some of the cities featured and do they include areas where there has been tension between civilians and police?
SHARENOW: Our goal was to really have geographic diversity, because part of what we were trying to capture is that there’s different challenges depending on where you are in the country. We do have some areas that are troubled by violent crime – Bridgeport, Connecticut; Tulsa, Oklahoma – and then we have some more rural areas – we’re in Utah, Arizona. You’ll see a diversity of crime, a diversity of people and that was important. Policing isn’t a cookie-cutter occupation. There is a lot of local nuance that goes on depending on where you are.
DEADLINE: Will every episode include the same police teams and all six locations?
SHARENOW: There is no set plan. it’s a very unpredictable show, and I think the idea is that we’ll have our crew filming all six for the entire night and that will really follow where the story is. In some instances, we may touch upon all six areas, in some instances we may just focus on one or two for the whole episode depending on what’s going on. I really think it depends on what the police we’re following come up against.
DEADLINE: I’m sure you’re going into it with some trepidation. You are using tape delay. What guidelines do you have about what you can show on TV?
SHARENOW: We did build this production very carefully. We have an incredible all-star team of veteran news and documentary producers making the show who are very used to following live events and know where the line is. We will have a team of legal experts with us as the show is transpiring to make the calls as they happen. But I think our protocols will not wildly diverge from what a new agency or a documentary crew normally does in terms of what’s permissible.
DEADLINE: Could you extend the series by adding extra episodes as it goes?
SHARENOW: Yeah, we certainly have the ability and the opportunity to do that, and on a given night, we could run longer if we chose to. It’s important to note that we’re not building ourselves up as a news agency, that’s not what this is, this is a documentary series that’s giving context and illuminating something right now. Our goal isn’t to become CNN. Our goal is to provide context and exposure to an issue that’s critically affecting the country right now. It’s important to note that there’s a lot of footage out there, and what we’re trying to do is bring journalistic insight to it, this isn’t unmediated footage. I think we built our team very carefully to be able to give viewers insights to exactly what they’re seeing from all sides of it. It will be an enhanced, elevated experience, it won’t be ‘Hey, here’s some footage’, and that is again part of the mission of the show, to have it not just be shown, but explained.
DEADLINE: Do the policemen featured have the right at any point to request that filming stops?
SHARENOW: Yeah, for safety, [if] they’re being endangered or someone’s endangered. But no, not for some random editorial reason. I do want to emphasize something that’s really important: we are filming it independently. This is not police cameras, this is not body cams or cameras that the police own or cameramen who are working for the police. These are independent documentarians and news crews doing this.
DEADLINE: With simultaneous live filming in six locations, what is the budget of Live PD?
SHARENOW: It’s not a cheap show. I can tell you that. But I will tell you — and this gets a little wonky and technical — there was a major technological advancement over the past year that allowed us to produce the show at all. Frankly, there is a new technology that allows us to aggregate these live feeds and edit them in a way that’s much more cost-efficient than what would have been a year ago. I’m not tech savvy to explain it to you, but I think if we had been having this conversation a year ago, we might not be talking about Live PD, because [it would have been] prohibitively expensive, but our producers and our tech team on the network side have embraced a new technology that has allowed something pretty spectacular to be presented at a fairly reasonable price point.
DEADLINE: Reasonable price, but it’s still a high-end non-scripted series, correct?
SHARENOW: It’s on the high-end for non-fiction, I’d say mid- to high-end.
DEADLINE: When you realized that the show is feasible, why did you decide to do it for A&E?
SHARENOW: For me A&E is leading the charge with non-fiction with shows that speak to the cultural zeitgeist in a very elevated way, and I think we’ve seen that with shows like Intervention, Born This Way we just won the Emmy this year; these are shows that dare to go places that haven’t been breached in television in quite the way we do it. I think both in subject matter and form, this [Live PD] is an instance of wow, there is something really critical going on in our country right now, there’s an incredible amount of debate, discussion and disagreement, and this is an opportunity for us to actually step into that conversation, and provide context and provide insight and provide transparency. That’s what gets me excited. To show, to bring to our audience something that is crucially important in their lives right now.
DEADLINE: It seems like A&E is going back to its darker, edgier, early days with shows like Intervention. The network went through a period with lighter fare like Duck Dynasty and Storage Wars. What does Live PD signify about the A&E brand and where you want to take it? Are you done with more comedic reality series?
SHARENOW: I think that A&E first and foremost is about non-fiction leadership, and part of what we are leaning into is that A&E is a fearless brand that is willing to tackle the most difficult subjects. Is there still room for stuff that isn’t super heavy? Of course. And I do think, when I look back on our brand, the hallmark of A&E’s non-fiction has always been a qualitative bar more than anything. When you look back at one of the original shows, Biography, which set the template for a whole genre of shows, there were I think eight imitators of that show. Biography always remained the most Emmy-nominated and -winning, and was the definitive brand, and whatever we do in non-fiction does have a leading edge and is raising the bar in a way that Live PD does.
Live PD is giving viewers the value proposition that they haven’t seen anywhere else. And I do think that Storage Wars, which remains a part of our brand, is very much in keeping with everything I just said. It was a very leading edge concept when we first introduced it. There were score of imitators of course, but it was a very real world thing that was happening and I think the executional excellence of that show explains it’s longevity.
DEADLINE: What is the future of Duck Dynasty?
SHARENOW: We have a new season coming up. We certainly have a very successful relationship with the family and we’re look forward to the upcoming episodes.