Live PD’s Unpredictability Keeps Audiences Glued to A&E Over Streamers

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Many networks are panicking as linear ratings continue to plummet—but not A&E.

The network saw nine consecutive quarters of year-over-year growth in the 25–54 age demo, due in large part to a show that has quietly turned into one of TV’s most successful franchises: Live PD. The show, which is hosted by Dan Abrams and follows police officers around the country live for three hours on Fridays and Saturdays, has made A&E the No. 1 cable network during those days in the same demo (in live-plus-3), lifting the net 20 spots from its prior rank before the series debuted in 2016.

During its 200-plus episodes, Live PD has ranked No. 1 in all of cable and broadcast in that demo 25 times. And as networks try to keep audiences from fleeing to streamers, the series continues to tap into the kind of programming that those rivals still aren’t able to provide.

“There’s the voyeuristic nature of it; you don’t actually know what’s going to happen. It’s truly reality television at its best—or worst, however you want to look at it,” said Maureen Bosetti, chief partnerships officer, Initiative. “It’s an interesting angle for them to continue to do it live. You can’t compete with that in the streaming world.”

Live PD wasn’t an out-of-the-box hit when it premiered in 2016 with a four-episode order. “It took a while for people to find it,” said Elaine Frontain Bryant, evp and head of programming, A&E. The network expanded it from Fridays to Saturdays, which “made a lot of sense for the action in the field, but also just the white space for our network. We were just doing repeats those nights.”

inforgraphic of stats about what goes into creating Live PD

Three years later, Live PD has become so successful that A&E has now spun off three different shows from it, each of which became the network’s highest-rated new series of that year: Live PD: Police Patrol (2017), Live PD Presents: PD Cam (2018) and Live Rescue (2019). Next up is a series with the most potential yet to cross over to a wider audience: America’s Top Dog, coming this winter, in which police K9s (including some from Live PD) and skilled civilian dogs compete in an obstacle course.

“They’ve essentially struck gold there, especially given the way people consume live TV now,” said Nick Hartofilis, evp, national video investment, Zenith. “The fact that they now have viewers keeping the channel on A&E for that show and they spin off other low-commitment types of comfort food TV, it’s definitely a good formula.”

However, the anything-can-happen element that makes the show so irresistible to viewers also keeps some nervous brands at bay. “It’s not for every client,” said Bosetti. “We just have to be careful of the content and make sure that there are guardrails around it.”

While some might keep their distance, many other brands have embraced Live PD, seeing as 175 unique advertisers ran on the show in the second quarter and ad revenue per hour has grown 130% since the program’s debut.

“Brands recognize the value this series provides,” said Peter Olsen, evp, ad sales, A+E Networks. “In today’s cross-platform landscape, there are few shows that engage a more passionate and loyal fan base—akin to the fervor held by sports fans—and immensely consistent and predictable ratings success.”

As Season 4 kicks off, producers are working to keep the show fresh, such as rotating to a new police department, often in a different region of the country, every six to eight weeks. They do this while also fending off upstart knockoffs like First Responders Live, which debuted on Fox this summer. And they are mindful of expanding the franchise without oversaturating the market.

This story first appeared in the Oct. 7, 2019, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.

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