How 'NYPD Blue' Producer Steven Bochco Changed TV

Apr 2, 2018

Steven Bocho, who changed television by pushing network boundaries on "NYPD Blue," died Sunday of leukemia at age 74.

Bochco broke barriers by using brief nudity, foul language and adult content on over-the-air network television to compete with unregulated content on cable television in the 1990s.

He also was one of television's best storytellers. He wrote for Peter Falk's clever "Columbo" detective, before creating a long string of innovative TV series with strong characters, engaging dialog, and unexpected plot twists. In other words, TV at its best.

The 1998-99 "NYPD Blue" cast featured Dayton native Andrea Thompson, James McDaniel, Nicholas Tuturro, Kim Delaney, Jimmy Smits and Dennis Franz.
Credit ABC Television

"Hill Street Blues" in 1981 elevated the decades-old police drama to a new art form, and the ensemble drama won 26 Emmys from 98 nominations.

He did it again with "NYPD Blue" in 1993, built around a foul-mouthed racist detective (Dennis Franz's Andy Sipowicz), which won 20 Emmys from 84 nominations.

He also re-invented the tired legal drama with "L.A. Law" in 1986 with the help of young Boston lawyer David E. Kelley, starting Kelley's Emmy-winning TV career.  It was the first fall TV season I reviewed, and I couldn't wait to see the second episode – which became my standard for TV excellence.

Bochco had great instincts for hiring young, talented writers, including Loveland native Ann Donahue ("Murder One," "Picket Fences," "CSI," "CSI: Miami," "CSI: Cyber"), Kenwood native Theresa Rebeck ("Smash," "Law & Order: Criminal Intent") and Forest Park native Greg Plageman ("Person of Interest," "Taken," "Cold Case"). Rebeck wrote my favorite "NYPD Blue" scenes, with Sipowicz bonding with his new partner Bobby Simone (Jimmy Smits) singing "The Duke of Earl" in their squad car.

Bochco, who won 10 prime-time Emmys, was a savvy showman and marketer. He knew the coarse language and nudity in the "NYPD Blue" pilot screened for ABC affiliates in May would upset some station owners – and give him lots of free publicity for the show before it premiered in September.  Some stations refused to air it (but not in Cincinnati).

Before the premiere, Bocho backed down a little, saying he had removed about six seconds. I watched both versions and determined that the edit was at least twice that long. Regardless, he pushed the boundaries and made broadcast TV police officers sound the way some police officers talk, giving it needed authenticity.

"NYPD Blue" also explored Sipowicz's racism, such as when he went to a ribs restaurant with his black boss (James McDaniel), and was the only white person in the place. Over time, Sipowicz became more enlightened about his racism, and race became less of an issue, as viewers came to know, accept and love Sipowicz.

Dennis Franz won three Emmys for best lead actor as Andy Sipowicz on "NYPD Blue."
Credit ABC Television

Bochco also had a keen eye for casting shows. "NYPD Blue" featured Franz, Smits, McDaniel, David Caruso, Gordon Clapp, Sharon Lawrence, Kim Delaney, Andrea Thompson, Gail O'Grady, Nicholas Turturro, Peter Boyle (before "Everybody Loves Raymond"), David Schwimmer (before "Friends") and Sherry Stringfield (before "ER").

"L.A. Law" made stars of Smits, Jill Eikenberry, Michael Tucker, Corbin Bersen, Susan Ruttan, Blair Underwood, Harry Hamlin and John Spencer.

Bochco's other series included "Murder One," a single court case played out over one TV season which he essentially remade as "Murder in the First" for TNT 20 years later; the gritty "Brooklyn South" police drama which opened with a police officer being killed, which upset some CBS affiliates and created buzz the summer of 1997; "Doogie Howser, M.D.," the 1989 Neil Patrick Harris kid doctor series which paved the way for ABC's "The Good Doctor" two decades later; "Philly," "City of Angels," "Blind Justice," "Civil Wars," "Over There" and John Ritter's short-lived "Hooperman."  

Not everything he touched turned to ratings' gold. He tried his hand in a prime-time animated show called "Capitol Critters" (1992) and the singing police drama "Cop Rock" (1990) 19 years before "Glee."