No one expects TV shows to reflect absolute reality. But what if the tropes writers rely on are reinforcing dangerous misperceptions?
According to a new report, cop shows, legal dramas and other crime-oriented series are loaded with concerning misrepresentations. Unjust actions by police are portrayed not only as routine and harmless, but acceptable and necessary. More to the point: "These series make heroes out of people who violate our rights."
Rashad Robinson is president of the racial justice organization Color of Change, which conducted the study and assessed 26 TV series (across broadcast network, cable and streaming) in collaboration with the Norman Lear Center at the University of Southern California. Among the shows examined: "Blue Bloods" and "NCIS" on CBS; "Bosch" on Amazon; "Narcos" on Netflix; and "Law & Order: SVU" and "Chicago P.D." on NBC.
"For the past 20 years in this country violent crime has steadily gone down," he said, "but if you ask most Americans, in Pew polls and others, they believe violent crime is going up. So we know there is a gap between perception and reality. And we know that what people think about the system -- in terms of whether it's working or not -- plays into what type of reforms they believe are viable."
The report found that crime shows imply "justice gets done because the rules get broken, that abuse and harm are rare, that racial bias and systemic racism do not exist and that current police methods keep people safe and are necessary for solving crime."
Sometimes this message is almost casually delivered. Consider a line from "NCIS: New Orleans" when Scott Bakula's special agent in charge asks one of his colleagues, "Where'd you get this information?" The response: "Don't ask."
Sometimes it's more overt. In an interrogation scene from "Hawaii Five-0," Chi McBride's Capt. Lou Grover turns to a member of the show's task force, played by Beulah Koale, and asks facetiously, "Are you sure you didn't give him brain damage when you when you slammed his head against the steering wheel?" to which his colleague replies, "I think brain damage was a preexisting condition."
But if the shows in question are fiction, why do these kinds of misrepresentations matter? Color of Change hammers home the point: What we watch on TV can have profound effects on how we think and talk about the world around us.
And these are some of the most popular shows on TV -- and on CBS, in particular. Last fall, "NCIS" was the No. 2 show on the network and was broadcast television's most watched drama with an average of 15.3 million viewers. Right behind that was "FBI," with 12.3 million viewers. The top 10 shows for CBS include "Seal Team, "Blue Bloods," "S.W.A.T.," "NCIS: New Orleans," "Hawaii Five-0" and "NCIS: Los Angeles."
On NBC, "Chicago P.D." is broadcast TV's fourth most watched drama.