In Montgomery, Ala., People Enjoy Seeing Neighbors Arrested — Local TV Station’s Version Of `Cops’ Is a Bit Grainy, But Big in the Ratings
By Greg Jaffe
Staff Reporter of The Wall Street Journal
18 October 1999
The Wall Street Journal
(Copyright (c) 1999, Dow Jones & Company, Inc.)
MONTGOMERY, Ala. — A little after 1 in the morning, Lt. H.C. Davis pulls up behind a battered Chevrolet abandoned at a busy intersection here.
“That’s where the car quit, and that’s where they left it,” the burly police officer says, shaking his head. “It’s crazy, just crazy.”
Lt. Davis calls a tow truck, chats with a fellow officer and checks to see whether the car has been reported stolen. A few feet away, a cameraman from “MPD: The Television Series,” a reality-based program about the city’s police department, records the action.
“That was good stuff, even though it was a little boring,” says Duncan Lindsey, as he puts down his battered RCA camcorder. “People will watch it.”
Each week for the past nine years, WCOV-TV, the Fox affiliate here in Montgomery, has sent a cameraman, armed with a $200 camcorder purchased at the local EZ-Pawn, to ride with police. The dark, grainy footage shown on “MPD” looks like something from a 7-Eleven security camera. The action sequences, which feature cops responding to false alarms, investigating fender benders and rousting drunks, are rarely the nail biters that have made the Fox network’s “Cops” series a big hit.
“We don’t show too many car chases,” admits Mike Kulan, one of the show’s producers. “Because we don’t have that many car chases.”
But Montgomerians still watch in droves. The show airs Monday evening at 6:30 on Channel 20 and is rebroadcast Saturday night at 9. In its Monday time slot, MPD finished first among adults 18 to 49 years old during last November’s sweeps ratings period, besting “Wheel of Fortune,” “Home Improvement” and “Entertainment Tonight.” It draws about 40,000 viewers an episode, more than such prime-time hits as “Dateline NBC,” the national “Cops” series, “3rd Rock From the Sun” and “The Practice.”
Based on MPD’s success, WCOV next month will begin airing a show about the Montgomery County Sheriff’s department that will profile deadbeat dads, recently released sex offenders, and fugitives wanted by the sheriff’s department.
MPD’s appeal is pretty basic: Every week the show gives this deeply religious city of about 187,000 a grainy glimpse into what their neighbors do after dark. Does the clerk at your grocery store have a drinking problem? Does your neighbor run red lights and not pay his traffic tickets? Tune in and find out.
“Odds are, if you watch long enough, someone you know from high school or work will be arrested,” promises Mr. Kulan.
That’s a powerful draw. “I don’t approve of the show at all,” says Ashley Allen, who owns a small business selling local telephone service. “It is ambush TV.” But he still watches the show sometimes and has seen two people he knows make appearances. One was a bartender, who used to work at a restaurant he frequented. Among the former bartender’s friends, the appearance was a “big joke,” Mr. Allen says. The bartender, who was stopped for driving erratically, “was pretty upset they showed the whole thing on television.”
The show doesn’t identify victims or suspects by name, just officers, the show’s true stars, the producers say. Mindful of privacy issues, cameramen try to shoot victims from behind to obscure their identity.
Word spreads quickly, nonetheless, when citizens appear on the show. Michael Vinson, who owns four pharmacies in Montgomery, says he occasionally spots customers who owe him money. “It doesn’t do me much good,” he says. “They are not going to pay me back from jail.”
Even people who have never seen friends arrested find the show oddly compelling. Louise Medley, a fourth-grade teacher, tunes in each week and says 23 of the 24 pupils she polled in her class watch too.
“I get to see a side of life in Montgomery that I would otherwise never see,” Ms. Medley says.
For all its fans, “MPD” has plenty of detractors, and it has inspired a certain paranoia in town. People pulled over for simple traffic offenses sometimes telephone the station demanding not to have their troubles aired. “Most of the time it turns out we didn’t even have a camera there,” says Mickey Wynn, who edits the show.
When Anne Sclater, a graduate student, called the police late one night because she heard a rustling outside her apartment, she was surprised to find not just the police but an MPD cameraman on her front lawn. Ms. Sclater, dressed in her bathrobe, angrily told the cameraman to stop filming. He didn’t. The cameraman, who accompanies police onto people’s property but not into their homes, told her that her appearance wasn’t interesting enough to make it on television. The incident wasn’t aired, but Ms. Sclater was upset anyway.
“I felt like it was total invasion of my privacy,” she says.
MPD got its start in 1991 when station owner David Woods was looking for local programming to distinguish his struggling UHF station. Creating a local nightly news program was too expensive. But a local show, modeled on the “Cops” series, could work if it ran “really, really lean,” Mr. Woods figured. Mr. Woods, who purchased the station in 1985 for $4.25 million, bought a cheap camcorder and asked the station’s part-time intern to tag along with police and film what he saw.
Montgomery Police Chief John Wilson initially had concerns about the show. “I wondered whether the public really wanted to see us riding around arresting their next-door neighbors,” he says. “Well it turns out the pubic loved it.” Today he supports the show, because it helps inform viewers about crime in their neighborhoods. “It’s a great crime-watch tool,” he says. And his officers love being on TV.
Similar versions of MPD were tried in New Orleans and Fort Lauderdale, Fla., in the early 1990s. But those shows were axed when ratings sagged. MPD’s ratings, on the other hand, have been consistently strong. The show’s only problem lately has been finding enough footage to fill a half-hour.
On a warm Saturday night in September, Mr. Lindsey, who has been riding with the police all week, has nothing to show for his effort. Then a little after 1 a.m., his luck turns. He shoots the scene involving the car abandoned in the busy intersection. He strikes gold again at 2 when he films a bloody accident involving a Jeep Wagoneer that hit a median strip.
“People might not flip the channel for 30 seconds when they see that wreck,” says the 25-year-old cameraman.
A few hours later, he shoots some footage of police arresting a drunk who insists his name is “God.”
When the night shift ends around 6 a.m., Mr. Lindsey still needs a few more minutes of action to round out the episode. He gets it a few days later when an officer picks up an inmate at the city jail and drives her to a doctor’s appointment. The middle-aged woman, clad in black-and-white-striped prison garb, was arrested for driving without a license. As soon as she sees the MPD cameraman, she smiles into the lens.
“I like to watch MPD,” she says. “I watch it every Monday at 6:30 . . . even in jail.”
The officer asks whether she has any advice for viewers of the show.
“Get you a damn license,” she says. “That’s what I tell them. Get you a damn license.”
With those words, the screen fades to black and the credits roll. Mr. Wynn cues up MPD’s theme song: “Life in the Fast Lane.”
“We got a little something for everyone,” Mr. Lindsey says of the episode. “That makes for a nice show.”
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