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25 Years On, Cops Is Now Collaring Viewers for Spike

It wasn't earth shattering news when cable’s Spike network announced a deal last year to take over Cops from its longtime home on Fox. While the cinema vérité show about the men and women of law enforcement had been a Fox staple for 25 seasons, its Saturday time slot and older viewership relative to other shows on the network made its departure a bit of a non-event. And, at least initially, it was: Barely a million viewers tuned in when the first original Cops episode aired on cable last September, sharply down from the over 3 million it attracted most weeks on Fox. But after a slow start, viewership on Spike has exploded, doubling in less than five months. It’s quickly become one of the bro-centric network’s biggest hits, with 8 p.m. Saturday first-run episodes regularly beating TBS reruns of The Big Bang Theory among men under 35. After years of being an afterthought on Fox, the bad boys, bad boys of Cops, which marks its 25th anniversary today, are turning out to be a very good business for Spike.

To be sure, a key reason Cops is doing so well for Spike is because the network, like most cable outlets, operates with dramatically different ratings and revenue expectations than a broadcaster such as Fox. Fewer people are watching new episodes of Cops at 8 p.m. each Saturday than tuned in when the show aired in the exact same timeslot on Fox. And yet, there are many other ways in which the show’s performance has impressed:

  • While some older viewers don’t seem to have gotten the message that Cops has changed channels, moving to cable has actually made the show more popular with one demographic: Men who weren’t even alive when the show first premiered back in 1989. Since September, Cops has averaged a .48 rating with adult men under the age of 24 — a 14 percent jump vs. the show’s last season on Fox, according to Spike analysis of Nielsen data. 
  • In Spike’s target demo of men under 50, Cops this season is beating all other first-run programming on cable Saturdays at 8 p.m., save for sporting events on ESPN and ESPN2. It is not unusual to see the show beat broadcast network programming in the male demo, either (though in fairness, the Big Four mostly air reruns or sports on Saturdays now.) 
  • Cops originals often draw a bigger overall audience Saturdays at 8 p.m. than USA Network’s very pricey Modern Family reruns. And it does better than many high-profile cable originals which air on Saturdays: Last week, a new episode of Cops drew a bigger audience than first-run hours of both Discovery’s Mythbusters and Starz’s lavish Black Sails.

The story of how Cops relocated to Spike from Fox begins a few years ago. Spike president Kevin Kay, whose network had always done decent numbers with reality shows such as World’s Wildest Police Videos and Undercover Stings, noticed that Fox was increasingly preempting Cops for sports, specials, or even reruns of scripted shows. A low point for Cops came in April 2012, when, as Vulture first reported, the network decided it would reduce its episodic commitment to the show and keep the show off its air for most of the remainder of the year. Suddenly, “It wasn’t on their schedule on a regular basis anymore,” Kay says, adding that he began hearing that Cops producer John and Morgan Langley were “concerned about whether Fox was fully invested” in continuing the show at all. “So I started a conversation with them,” he recalls. “I said, ‘I don’t know where you are, but Spike is really interested in the show. We want to be the first ones you call if it doesn’t work out with Fox.” Kay said the Langleys, who already produced Undercover Stings for his network, were intrigued. The elder Langley, however, wanted Cops to stay on Fox through its 25th season. Once that milestone was reached, John Langley got back in touch with Kay, asking if Spike was still interested. “I told him we were, and he said, ‘There won’t be some 30-year-old [Spike exec] telling me how to produce Cops, will there?’” Kay assured Langley that he’d have creative freedom and his 8 p.m. Saturday time slot; a deal followed not long thereafter.

While the Langleys were most interested in producing original episodes, Kay’s interest in the show extended beyond simply adding a single half-hour series to his lineup. He wanted to make Cops a key franchise for the network. So in addition to green-lighting 13 new episodes, Kay hammered out a deal with Langley that includes access to 300 older episodes (out of the nearly 900 produced for Fox). “There’s a huge library … and we have it for a couple of years,” Kay says. “And the more we extend our deal to produce originals, the more access we get to the library.”

But the older episodes have ended up being more than just a time-filler (though, with literally dozens of episodes airing during the day, Wednesdays through Thursdays, it does fill many hours of the network’s lineup). Spike has also used Cops as anchor programming throughout the week, leveraging the show’s strong brand appeal to attract channel surfers who might otherwise skip over Spike. “It has a lot of utility for us,” Kay says. “And there’s no question it’s boosting audience.” The exec says slotting Cops reruns on Thursdays at eight, for example, has given a boost to its TNA Wrestling franchise, which airs at nine. “I’m not at all surprised the originals are doing well [on Saturdays],” Kay says. “But the ratings for the library [episodes] took us a little bit by surprise." Overall, he says, Cops reruns “improve almost every time slot they’re in versus what we were doing a year ago.”

The cross-generational, and even cross-gender, appeal of Cops may be one reason why the show’s numbers have been so impressive. Many of the older, male viewers who previously watched the show Saturdays on Fox are now finding it on Spike; some of its best ratings are with men aged 25 to 54. But the younger men who’ve been watching wrestling and Ink Master on the network also now seem to be coming to Cops. Kay even speculates that, since Cops has been on the air now for nearly a generation, there are some parents bringing their kids along. “You’ve got 25 years of history with this show, and a lot of parents watched it when they were kids,” he says. “I think it’s like wrestling. When you go to TNA matches, you see kids on their parents shoulders. I think Cops brings that.” And while Cops, like most things on Spike, does better with men than women, the show’s audience is 43 percent female. “There’s an assumption that it’s overwhelmingly male, but it’s pretty balanced,” Kay says.

Spike initially ordered 22 new episodes of Cops, but the show’s instant success has already convinced it to buy another 33 half-hour episodes, for a total of 55. Kay wouldn’t talk specifics about how much the show costs the network, but an industry source familiar with the show’s cost estimates Cops costs in the same ballpark as Spike’s other reality shows. And while titles such as Cops often don’t attract A-list advertisers, particularly when they air on broadcast networks, Kay says luring advertisers hasn’t been an issue. While some brands have no desire to showcase their goods in Cops, movie studios, fast-food restaurants, and video game manufacturers are more than happy to ride along with the men and women of law enforcement. “Advertisers like ratings,” says Kay. And growth is what they like to see. That’s what we’re getting with Cops. It’s providing a lift for the whole network.”

Photo: FOX