TMQ takes apart “police procedurals” (otherwise known as crime shows)

After some analysis of the Super Bowl, Tuesday Morning Quarterback gets down to his real business of dissecting “police procedurals.” Here are some points I appreciated:

Television is swamped in police dramas. During a recent week, 14 of the 45 Big Three prime-time hours were crime shows. Except they no longer are called that — the genre is now “procedurals.” In theory this means the shows depict police procedure. In practice, being a procedural means a formula. Here it is…[a 15 point formula follows]

On TV, cops exist in constant jeopardy of life and limb. This, though “most police officers retire at the end of a 20- or 25-year career without ever having fired a weapon other than at the practice range.” Despite the bullets ricocheting around them, TV detectives are NEVER frightened. Most are spoiling to charge headlong into obvious danger…

But isn’t the violence realism? In the world of TV, murder and mayhem are an epidemic. Actually crime is in generation-long cycle of decline. Today, strollers are safer in Central Park after dark than in the 1950s. Last year, Central Park averaged slightly more than one robbery a month, versus two robberies a day a generation ago. Yet on procedurals, crime is getting worse. This plays to preconceived notions about the nation falling apart, especially such notions held by senior citizens, who watch a lot of television.And on procedurals, the police always catch the bad guy. Actually a significant number of homicides are never solved, while most burglaries never even lead to an arrest. Of course, procedurals are just Hollywood nonsense. But procedurals get it wrong both ways: making crime seem more common than it is, but also making crime seem never to pay.

Lots of good material here.

One might say that this doesn’t matter, people clearly know what is entertainment on television and they don’t mistake police shows for what actually happens. But I would argue that this is not the case: most people’s knowledge about police work and crime likely comes from the mass media, particularly depictions on television and in movies. Crime rates are going down yet one wouldn’t know it from its rising popularity on TV. Serial killers are uncommon except on television. Children are rarely abducted except on television. These shows and movies aim to trigger emotional reactions (as TMQ notes, the grisliness of the crimes is often shocking) and fearful responses.

A silly and yet illustrative example from my own life: where I hear news that someone was killed during the day, I have a hard time reconciling this with media images I’ve seen for years that murders tend to take place in stormy situations. While the storms in shows and movies might be more metaphorical than anything else, I have this idea in my head that this is when killing happens. I would guess there is not much data to back this up but this is an idea that has stuck with me even though it was never clearly expressed to me. Violent crime = bad weather.

If we expect citizens to be able to discuss and vote intelligently about important topics like crime and punishment (and have no doubt, we like to punish people), how can this happen if television is painting a heavily slanted story? I wouldn’t suggest that television needs to be completely realistic but at the same time, common images have a cultural power that is difficult to counteract.

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  1. [...] 2. Best argument of this book: this remarkable peacefulness is almost completely under-the-radar and people need to recognize how much safer the world has become. (I’ve noted before the incorrect perceptions regarding crime.) [...]

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