Airs as the First Widely Popular Police Show Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The television series Dragnet, which dramatized episodes in the case files of the Los Angeles Police Department, became the prototype for all realist drama series, introduced the docudrama to American television, and developed new production methods. Also, one-liners and the show’s theme song have since become part of popular culture.

Summary of Event

On Sunday, December 16, 1951, the pilot episode of Dragnet, entitled “The Human Bomb,” was aired on the National Broadcasting Company National Broadcasting Company;police shows (NBC) television network. The series became one of the most popular programs in the early days of television, with an estimated thirty-eight million viewers per week, regularly putting the show among the top five in ratings. It also is credited with bringing realism to television, along with establishing numerous new production techniques. Dragnet (television program) Television;police shows [kw]Dragnet Airs as the First Widely Popular Police Show (Dec. 16, 1951) [kw]Police Show, Dragnet Airs as the First Widely Popular (Dec. 16, 1951) Dragnet (television program) Television;police shows [g]North America;Dec. 16, 1951: Dragnet Airs as the First Widely Popular Police Show[03650] [g]United States;Dec. 16, 1951: Dragnet Airs as the First Widely Popular Police Show[03650] [c]Radio and television;Dec. 16, 1951: Dragnet Airs as the First Widely Popular Police Show[03650] [c]Popular culture;Dec. 16, 1951: Dragnet Airs as the First Widely Popular Police Show[03650] Webb, Jack Yarborough, Barton Alexander, Ben Morgan, Harry

Since 1949, Dragnet Dragnet (radio program) had been a popular radio show. In this medium, Jack Webb, the show’s creator, played Sergeant Joe Friday and Barton Yarborough was his partner, Ben Romero. Webb got the idea for a realistic police drama from a conversation with technical adviser Marty Wynn on the film set of He Walked by Night (1948), a police drama in which Webb acted. With the growth in popularity of television, Dragnet joined other successful radio shows in switching to the new medium.

Beginning with the pilot, Webb introduced to television audiences the docudrama Docudramas Television;docudramas Realism;television , a fact-based story with some fictional characterization. Webb’s voice-over narrative gave viewers a highly believable personal account while taking them through the steps of crime solving. In Webb’s view, authenticity must never be sacrificed, and he emphasized the meticulous nature of police work. He gained a reputation as a workaholic and perfectionist.

In the interest of realism and also to save on production costs, the pilot was filmed on location at Los Angeles City Hall. This set the precedent for future Dragnet shows. The episode began when, backed by the Dragnet theme, a narrator uttered the now-famous line (moved in later episodes to a spot after a brief introduction) assuring the audience of the story’s validity: “The story you are about to see is true. The names have been changed to protect the innocent.” Then, Webb’s voice-over stated, “This is the city.” After a brief description of Los Angeles and its city hall, Webb then went into his account of the date, weather conditions, and the specific circumstances surrounding the episode. Webb and Yarborough reprised their radio roles as Friday and Romero, while Raymond Burr Burr, Raymond portrayed Chief of Detectives Thad Brown.

In this first episode, Stacy Harris Harris, Stacy played Vernon Carney, who threatened to detonate an explosive device in city hall unless his brother was released from prison. Throughout the remainder of the program, viewers witnessed the tense and dangerous but nevertheless realistic disarming of the bomb carrier. In what became another Dragnet tradition, the accused, looking somber and somewhat contrite, appeared on the screen at the show’s conclusion. At this point, another narrator stated the nature of the court’s decision. In the case of Vernon Carney, confinement to a state institution for the criminally insane was the sentence.

The popularity of the pilot ensured Dragnet a spot as a midseason replacement on NBC. On January 3, 1952, the series began its regular run, with Webb and Yarborough appearing as the main characters. Yarborough, however, had died on December 19, 1951, after filming only two episodes. Webb tried a number of replacements before choosing former child star Ben Alexander as his new partner, Officer Frank Smith. Both on the set and in the story line itself, the easygoing Alexander proved to be the perfect counterpoint for the intense and driven Webb. Over the next seven years, Webb and Alexander would appear together in more than 250 episodes.

Webb’s desire for authenticity was achieved by using actual cases from the Los Angeles Police Department and having the participating police officers utilized as technical advisers. Producers stressed adherence to the legal framework of police procedures, painstaking fact-finding, and teamwork. The episodes ranged from more common cases, such as an investigation of hit-and-run drivers and the solving of a liquor store robbery, to the more unusual, including a man strangled with his own necktie and a probe into swindlers preying on military families. Only one episode was not based on actual police files. The annual Christmas story relating the investigation of a church’s missing Christ child was fictitious.

Dragnet was one of the highest-rated shows during the early and mid-1950’s. Normally, it placed second or third in the ratings. I Love Lucy could be counted on to gain the top spot, and only Arthur Godfrey’s talent shows and later The Honeymooners regularly challenged Dragnet. As early as 1954, however, the restless Webb considered leaving the series. The demanding production schedule, the belief that viewers would soon tire of the program, and his interest in other projects were responsible for this attitude. Webb was criticized for neglecting Dragnet in favor of Pete Kelly’s Blues, a 1959 summer series he had developed. Despite these problems, the show continued. By the late 1950’s, the popularity of Dragnet began to drop, and it was barely breaking the top twenty in ratings. In 1959, after 278 episodes, Webb voluntarily canceled the series.

After a successful television movie in 1966, Dragnet returned as a midseason replacement on NBC in 1967. In order to preclude any perception that reruns were being aired, the show was titled Dragnet ’67, with later years’ episodes also dated. Citing the public’s increased interest in urban crime, Webb hoped to combine the old formula with contemporary subjects. Webb would repeat his role as Joe Friday, but since Ben Alexander was already featured in another crime drama, Felony Squad, Webb chose Harry Morgan as his new partner, Officer Bill Gannon. Friday, who had risen to the rank of lieutenant in the old series, returned as a sergeant. Once again citing his desire for authenticity, Webb stated that the higher rank would have kept the character from participating in field investigations and thus limited the plot potential.

Although the new series continued to feature the more common types of police investigations, such as robbery, fraud, and missing persons, an emphasis was placed on such issues as race relations and illegal drugs. The first episode of Dragnet ’67 focused on the growing drug culture in Los Angeles and a young man who became a victim of this phenomenon. Other episodes focused on police relations with minority groups. Despite a growth of violence on police dramas, Dragnet avoided any tendency in this direction. Although Webb received praise for these efforts, others criticized his characterizations. Sergeant Friday was seen as one-dimensional and too close to perfection. The series was perceived by some as condescending, preachy, and somewhat out of step with the reality of inner-city life.

By the fall of 1970, the new show had run its course, and Webb was involved in other projects. On September 10 of that year, the final episode was shown. First-run episodes of Dragnet thus aired on American television for more than ten years. In the process, the series garnered more than one hundred awards from within and outside the entertainment business, including three Emmys.


Dragnet had a major impact on the development and style of television programming and on relationships between the program and its audience. Jack Webb was responsible for a number of these innovations.

Along with I Love Lucy, Dragnet was one of the few early shows to opt for filmed programming instead of live performances. Also, in December of 1953, Dragnet became the first series to broadcast regularly in color. The series also was a major impetus for making Los Angeles the center of the television industry. Most early programs originated from New York. Since the major networks were headquartered in that city and many shows were done live in the studios, this was a logical choice. When Dragnet and I Love Lucy began to use film, television could take advantage of the facilities in Hollywood. Increasingly, new shows used the Los Angeles area as their base of operation.

Dragnet’s music and dialogue also impacted the entertainment business and the American public. The famous Dragnet theme, with its powerful nine-note beginning, was composed by Walter Schumann Schumann, Walter . The theme proved to be so popular that during 1953 a version of it by Ray Anthony and His Orchestra rose to number three on the Billboard chart. Even long after the conclusion of the series, Dragnet’s musical introduction symbolized the crime-drama genre. Joe Friday’s narrative and clichés also filtered into the popular culture. Although the frequency of their use on the series was somewhat exaggerated, such one-liners as “just the facts, ma’am,” and variations thereof, have worked themselves into everyday speech. These were among the first examples of television’s ability to affect other forms of entertainment and to influence American popular culture.

Webb realism differed from most other early programs, which had been vaudeville-type comedies or variety shows; they also presented heroes who were detached from average viewers. Webb attempted to avoid stereotypes and portrayed people as they really behaved, including their good and bad points. This characterization extended to the police officers themselves.

Dragnet also reinforced the adage that crime did not pay, a message that helped the series appeal to average viewers. Episodes were often shown to school and civic groups to reinforce these themes. It is difficult to determine the success of such efforts.

The docudrama style, first used on television by Dragnet, was soon copied by a number of shows, and its popularization of the crime drama would, by 1953, result in the creation of more than twenty new shows in that genre. In the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, Webb utilized this style to create two new popular shows, Adam 12 and Emergency. By this period, docudramas had become one of the major means of presenting television drama. Dragnet (television program) Television;police shows

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Castleman, Harry, and Walter J. Podrazik. Watching TV: Four Decades of American Television. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1982. Although an overview of television history, this work devotes a great deal of space to discussing both the development of Dragnet and its role in American television history. It gives a solid account of the series’ format and its impact on both the television industry and the public in general.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Grossberger, Lewis. “Jack Webb: 1920-1982.” Rolling Stone (February 17, 1983): 68. Obituary of Webb describing Sergeant Joe Friday as a perfect hero for the 1950’s.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hayde, Michael J. My Name’s Friday: The Unauthorized but True Story of Dragnet and the Films of Jack Webb. Nashville, Tenn.: Cumberland House, 2001. A foreword by Dragnet actor Harry Morgan introduces this unauthorized biography of Webb, a “true story” ideal for readers interested in the primary creator of Dragnet.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kaminsky, Stuart M., with Jeffrey H. Mahan. American Television Genres. Chicago: Nelson-Hall, 1985. Presents a comparison of the Dragnet detectives with other investigators in literary and motion-picture history. The book also includes a good analysis of crime drama.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Tregaskis, Richard. “The Cops’ Favorite Make-Believe Cop.” The Saturday Evening Post (September 26, 1953). Explores the process that led to the making of Dragnet and discusses the show’s early history. Also examines Jack Webb’s personality and work habits.

FCC Licenses Commercial Television

NBC Is Ordered to Divest Itself of a Radio Network

Variety Shows Dominate Television Programming

Golden Age of Television

I Love Lucy Dominates Television Comedy

Debut of Gunsmoke Launches the Adult Western Drama

Categories: History