Posted on October 16, 2020

CBS Is Remaking Its Police Shows for the Black Lives Matter Era

Steven Zeitchik, Washington Post, October 14, 2020

On most days, MacGyver is off doing what MacGyver does, detonating pipe bombs with paper clips or scrounging up chocolate to stop a deadly acid leak. He’s Mac, after all, star of the hit CBS reboot and science-based action hero; audiences have been tuning in to see what he’ll literally pull out of his hat since the 1980s.

But this is 2020, and such whiz-bang trickery isn’t enough, not even in the escapist realm of network television. So in an upcoming episode, the character will grapple with a different type of life-or-death consequence: He and a friend will hash out questions of racial justice, police defunding and the long-standing contradictions of being a Black police officer in America.

The reason for the pivot: Before the episode, MacGyver (or, the men and women who write him) had an extended conversation with Ron Davis, the former executive director of President Barack Obama’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing who runs the reform-minded criminal justice organization 21CP Solutions with former D.C. police chief Charles Ramsey.

“They were asking all the right questions, and I just tried to tell them my truth,” Davis recalled of the session.

“This will help our storytelling become more authentic,” said Monica Macer, who oversees “MacGyver” as showrunner, and met with Davis and his team.

The meeting is part of an ambitious effort by one of the most influential producers of popular entertainment, CBS Studios, to confront the potential influences of its shows in incidents like the killings of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd by police. In what is believed to be a television first, the entertainment firm has hired 21CP to help shape its shows. Normally tasked with remaking police departments, the group has been recruited to change how law enforcement is portrayed on TV.

The deal represents a new kind of Hollywood, one willing to bring change into the most sacred of spaces: the writers room. 21CP’s staffers differ from the consultants producers usually hire to help writers nail down the technical details of police work. Davis and his team are answering questions from writers, offering ideas for scripts and even reviewing pilots for accuracy about what being a police officer in America really looks like — and should look like.

As a result, the resulting episodes also have the potential to do something else: repel prime-time viewers who prefer their police as full-on heroes or even elicit an All Lives Matter backlash from law enforcement leaders. “They will be stories engineered to further diminish public opinion of police officers so that the anti-police movement can achieve their ultimate goal: the complete abolition of policing and total impunity for criminals,” Patrick Lynch, the president of the Police Benevolent Association of the City of New York, said in an email.


When Black Lives Matter protests swept the world in June, they provoked a strong response throughout the television industry. Shows such as A&E’s “Live PD” were shelved, and many news organizations questioned their own depictions of police and communities of color. At ViacomCBS, the reaction was swift on the Viacom side of the company: Paramount TV canceled the controversial reality show “Cops,” leading to its stranding overseas, while executives at MTV, with a long history of activism, led a charge across the firm’s cable networks to stop programming for eight minutes and 46 seconds, the time it was originally thought a police officer knelt on Floyd’s neck.

On the CBS side, the conversation over inclusion was different, and in a way more sensitive. The company had a new president and chief executive in George Cheeks, brought in not long after Leslie Moonves was ousted over allegations that he fostered a culture of misogyny.

The company also had a lot more invested in mainstream perceptions of law enforcement than its rivals — many of its hits centered on exactly that subject. The three most-watched scripted shows in the 2019-2020 network television season were all made by and aired on CBS, and all revolved around crime-fighting: “Blue Bloods,” “FBI” and “NCIS.” The last one is watched by an average of more than 15 million people each week, making it the most-viewed program on television not named “Sunday Night Football.”

The network suddenly had to grapple with how it came by that success. On these shows, after all, law enforcement characters often save the day, sometimes by breaking the rules — exactly the type of modeling that many activists say leads to police misconduct.

Aware of these shows’ potential effects, Tiffany Smith-Anoa’i, executive vice president of Entertainment, Diversity & Inclusion for West Coast ViacomCBS, scheduled a meeting with Cheeks. {snip}

Most police shows in 2020 do not openly glorify unconstitutional behavior. The problem, say critics, lies with subtle ways of focusing on police as the heroes, often with an excess of machismo. {snip}


The project in a way flips a long-standing narrative dating back at least to Tipper Gore’s crusade against rap music in the 1990s: Where she focused on how entertainment can lead ordinary citizens to violence, the current effort scrutinizes how portrayals of police can prod law enforcement to bad action.

There are two staples of nearly all broadcast shows about law enforcement: The main characters rarely do harm, and they are almost always effective at solving crimes. This is a stark difference from law enforcement in the real world, where ineffectuality is common and can lead to harm. The shows also sometimes feature the rogue cop, the time-honored trope of a police officer who bends the rules to get what he or she needs.


“It’s incumbent on us to look deeper at our shows and make sure we have all the tools in our tool belt to get it right,” said David Stapf, president of CBS Studios, of his decision to make the deal. “I think this is the next evolution for us.”


“MacGyver’s” Macer says she has drawn on her own experience as a woman of color. In an upcoming episode, MacGyver, who operates on behalf of the mysterious governmental Phoenix Foundation, will talk with the father of his friend Wilt Bozer, who also plays a paternal role for him, about the elder Bozer’s inner conflict as a Black police officer. The show may also explore the tensions between the elder Bozer and his wife, active in city politics, over the defund-the-police debate.


CBS has to be careful not to alienate its core audience, which is not considered highly activist. The network skews older — at the start of last season, the age of its average viewer was 63, the oldest among the four broadcast networks. In a climate where so much of public life and pop culture has been politicized, inserting too much reform talk into escapist entertainment could be tricky.

All the CBS principals stressed authenticity, not social change, when asked about the partnership; they said they didn’t want to be preachy. Their careful choice of words suggests the fine line the experiment must walk, following the genre’s conventions but shaping them for a new age of consciousness, advocating social change without appearing to do so.

If such moves draw pro-police criticism, executives said that wouldn’t deter them.

“I wouldn’t care if there was a Blue Lives Matter backlash,” said Stapf, the CBS Studios president. “I just want us to expose ourselves to different points of view. And not just pat ourselves on the back for doing it right.”