A mere handful of subjects and locales make up the vast majority of TV shows — hospitals (doctors), courtrooms (lawyers), home and family (in both scripted dramas and comedies) and of course, police.
There are also shows about firefighters, EMTs and other first responders. And outer space is the realm of our sci-fi shows.
All in all, the genres that are most prevalent on TV can be counted on less than two hands.
This week, one of our long-running police reality shows, “Cops,” was cancelled. And A&E put one of its reality cop shows — “Live PD” — on an indefinite hiatus. This is the show that purports to show live police work, including apprehensions and their aftermath.
When considering this cancellation news, it becomes reasonable to wonder if we are now to witness the demise of one of the core categories of television content — namely, cops and criminals.
Certainly, a complete erasure of police shows from TV entirely is less likely than a mass reframing of the cop genre.
Existing shows might change the way their stories are written, for example, perhaps with greater deference to the perps and suspects, and less to the police who apprehend them.
As TV does, allowances and adjustments will be made in order to better reflect the attitudes and perceptions of audiences.
On the other hand, what if cop shows went away altogether? An entire genre of TV running its course and then disappearing entirely is not unprecedented. It happened to Westerns for a couple of reasons — all of which can be summed up as “times change.” And so do attitudes.
From the latter half of the 1950s to the early 1960s, Westerns dominated network television. They hit a peak with 31 Western series on the three networks during the 1958-59 season, according to The Complete Directory to Prime Time Network and Cable TV Shows, 1946-Present (Eighth Edition) by Tim Brooks and Earle Marsh. By the 1964-65 season, there were only seven.
What happened to the Westerns? The book attributes their demise to several factors, starting with the sheer number of them. There were simply too many.
A second factor was a growing concern over TV violence as the new decade of the 1960s started to take shape, the directory’s authors wrote. With their reliance on gunplay to settle disputes, Westerns were a prime exhibit in the era’s growing awareness of violence on television.
And the third factor, according to the book, was related to improvements in audience measurement that found that the Westerns were drawing older audiences, with younger viewers gravitating toward the sitcoms of the era. Then, as now, TV prefers its viewers younger.
To take that last reason a step further, it implies that for younger, hipper audiences, the Westerns had become old-hat and more reflective of values in sync with the 1950s than the 1960s.
Based on the new way a younger generation today seems to perceive the role of police and law enforcement in society, might traditional TV cop shows now go the way of the Westerns?
It could happen. Considering everything that has been going on lately, perhaps TV cop shows are also old-hat now, and out of sync. Reframing them might not be enough to save them.