Cops and Doctors and Lawyers, Oh My!: Networks and their Love Affair with the Procedural
One of the staples of American network television is the procedural. Despite the increasing prevalence of serialized storytelling, procedurals (standalone, case-of-the-week series) remain the networks’ main source of original dramatic programming, and of these, nearly all fit into at least one of three categories- police, medical, and legal.
Series from each of these subsets date back to at least the ‘60s and have remained popular through the years. It’s not hard to see why- police officers, doctors, and lawyers have inherently dramatic professions. Potentially dramatic, that is. Series rarely spend time on the more mundane elements- non-escalating traffic stops, easily treatable colds, amicable divorces, and of course, paperwork. Instead, it’s gruesome murders, hostage situations, inoperable tumors, and defending free speech over the needs of homeland security.
That’s not to say that other jobs can’t provide appropriately interesting situations, but with potential audience members seeing the impact of cops, doctors, and lawyers every day on the news and in their lives, selling a studio or executive or viewers on the import and interest of such a show is decidedly easier than some others. (So it’s about a meth cooker…) Of course, once this trend was established and audiences came to associate the professions with TV and procedurals more specifically, a self-perpetuating cycle was established that continues today.
So which of the three is most prevalent? Which is most popular? Which networks prefer which kind, and has there been much fluctuation over time? After some research, here’s how it breaks down.
**Author’s note: This data is based on 260 distinct series from the 1940s to present that aired or are currently airing on one of the four major networks (ABC, CBS, FOX, NBC). Presumably this is not every series to air that would qualify, but it’s a large enough pool that I felt confident drawing the following conclusions.
Networks like cop shows. 55% of the series analyzed were police procedurals, while 23.5%, less than half of that, were legal procedurals, and even fewer, 16.9%, were medical procedurals. Hybrid series (police/legal, police/medical, or police/legal/medical) made up only 4.6%.
While police procedurals are far more numerous than either legal or medical, they in general follow the same trends, implying a correlation between the popularity of any one type and procedurals in general. The exception to this is the ‘90s, when the number of police and medical procedurals declined while over six times as many legal procedurals were produced as in the ‘80s. Of course, as it is only 2012, the data set for the 2010s is incomplete, and though this graph shows a decline from the ‘00s to the ‘10s, this drop will only decrease each year. Also, it feels important to mention that for quite a while in the early days of television, westerns ruled the air, with networks sometimes airing dozens in a given week. As westerns declined in popularity, police procedurals took off. (You can read more on TV westerns in this article, which gives a brief historical overview of the genre.)
This graph shows the average lifespan (number of seasons on the air) for each type of procedural, by decade. While police/medical procedurals and police/legal procedurals seem to be incredibly popular, it should be remembered that these are very small data sets. There are only two police/medical series represented here(Diagnosis Murder and Third Watch) and very few police/legal series outside of the Law & Order franchise. It does seem a bit odd, however, that though these series have been incredibly successful, there haven’t been more attempts in these hybrid genres, successes or particularly failures, which would bring down the average. Perhaps the most interesting trend in this graph is that police procedurals are the most consistent performers. They don’t reach the peaks of popularity that medical series did in the 60s and legal series did in the 80s, but they’ve remained solidly in the 3-4.5 season range. Also interesting is that certain decades see a dip in all three, the ‘70s and the ‘00s, implying that audiences were less interested in procedurals in general at those times.
This combines the previous two line graphs. The placement on the vertical axis demonstrates the number of series of a particular type and the size of the bubble demonstrates the average lifespan. As we saw before, police procedurals remain consistent in lifespan, despite the number of series on the air at a given time. In contrast, the highest lifespan for legal series is by far the ‘80s, when there were comparatively few of them. Presumably the popularity of a few specific legal series, rather than the genre as a whole, is responsible for this ballooning of average lifespan. Again, as we saw earlier, medical series sit between police and legal series in general, in terms of lifespan, and have fewer extreme spikes and dips.
ABC loves to go with cop shows, it would seem. Though so far in the ‘10s we haven’t seen the same preference for police procedurals over medical and legal as in prior decades, in general ABC seems more comfortable with them. Also interesting is the dearth of legal series in the ‘80s, when overall the lifespan (and therefor popularity) for legal series at this time was high. Perhaps the large spike in the ‘90s was their reaction to this.
As with the overall trend, ABC’s police procedurals have been fairly consistent in terms of lifespan. However, their biggest successes (at least in lifespan) have been medical series. In contrast, legal series seem to be fairly unreliable for them, regardless of how many they try.
CBS seems to like procedurals in general, and particularly in the past few decades. As with ABC, police procedurals tend to take precedence, but other than the ‘80s, legal series have been popular as well. Particularly notable is the number of police procedurals in the ‘10s- we’re only two years and a few months in and there are already 14, and while 3 may not feel like a lot of medical series so far this decade, that already ties the ‘10s with the ‘70s and ‘90s.
CBS would appear to be the network of the successful procedural. Though the average lifespans decrease over time, and in general do so as the number of series per decade increases, even in the ‘00s, police and legal procedurals were still performing well. Medical procedurals didn’t fare well in the ‘00s and haven’t so far in the ‘10s, but it’s still early.
FOX is somewhat troublesome in that it has a tiny data pool. This is mainly due to two factors. First of all, it’s a comparatively new network, so it doesn’t have the decades of series (from the ‘40s-‘70s) to draw from. Secondly, FOX has one fewer hour of original programming each night of the week, meaning that in a given week, they have 10 hours of original programming as compared to every other network’s 15. This makes the data difficult, if not pointless, to analyze, though it does give some insight to the network’s priorities.
For example, as with the other networks, FOX opts for police procedurals over legal and medical series. They tried out more legal series in the ‘00s (particularly after the success of Ally McBeal, one assumes), but haven’t gone back to that well since.
Police procedurals have been fairly reliable for FOX, but the legal and particularly medical series aren’t worth analyzing. Those giant red bubbles in the ‘00s and ‘10s, for example, are House. Though perhaps it’s interesting that FOX hasn’t tried to replicate that success, the comparative lifespans of medical to legal to police procedurals aren’t meaningful, given so few series to base any trends on.
NBC is somewhat of a mixed bag. After leaning heavily on police procedurals in the ‘60s-‘80s, NBC reacted to the popularity of legal series in the ‘80s and diversified. Since then, they’ve been more balanced. The police/legal series in the 90s, by the way, are mostly members of the Law & Order franchise, which became a huge hit for NBC.
Though these bubbles seem smaller than the other networks’, it’s important to note that the scale on this graph is decidedly different from those above, due to the downright silly number of police procedurals NBC aired during the ‘70s. In fact, NBC has done well with cop shows, lasting on average between 3.5-5.75 seasons until the ‘00s, when they started to decline in lifespan. This may be due to the popularity of Law & Order– perhaps NBC viewers preferred that style or only wanted to watch so many police procedurals and picked L&O over the others NBC had to offer. In general, legal series have not done well for them, though they did do well in the ‘80s, and medical series have been wildly inconsistent. In the ‘50s, ‘70s, and ‘10s, they’ve underperformed, in the ‘60s and ‘80s they’ve done well, and the ‘90s, well, that’s ER for you.
Procedurals aren’t going anywhere and cop shows remain king. Certain networks rely on each type more than others, but regardless of topic, procedurals have been a mainstay of television for decades and that won’t change any time soon. They’re reliable, they’re familiar, but most of all, they tend to be successful. Television is, after all, a business, and a rather risky one at that. It’s hard to blame networks for trying to get closer to a sure bet. Looking at the Venn diagrams above though, it seems no one has tried a medical/legal series yet, and only one show has really tried to combine police, legal, and medical (where the docs are working on living patients, that is). Perhaps the time has come? It’s pilot season right now- who knows exactly what the fall will bring. We can be pretty sure, however, that whatever the networks throw our way, there will be at least a few cops, doctors, and lawyers in the mix.