The death of Cops crew member Bryce Dion, who was accidentally shot by a police officer during a robbery in Omaha, Neb., stunned the tight-knit reality TV community. Wicked Tuna and Dirty Jobs producer Craig Piligian, who is unaffiliated with Cops, spoke with TV Guide Magazine to explain how camera operators, audio technicians, and their teams are the unsung heroes of unscripted television.
"These are really the brave men and women on the front lines, dedicating their lives to getting the great shot. I started on Real Stories of the Highway Patrol, and there was always a real possibility that somebody would get in the line of fire. You think about [safety] all the time. We think about it on Wicked Tuna. We thought about it on Survivor. It's a real thing in our business, especially when you want to do extreme reality.
"The crew has to be smart; they've got to have really great instincts and a feel for story. Now you look at what's on TV and everyone wants to go farther, faster, higher and more. You've got to remember that the crew members are doing the same thing as the subjects they're following, but with 50-pound cameras on their shoulders, and walking backward!
"It can be scary. There's always bumps and bruises along the way. But that's all you really want. I think [Dion's death] was just sad — the wrong place, wrong time. I imagine the cop feels horrible. It's a testament to all of the show's safety protocol and rules that this is the first time in Cops' history that this ever happened.
"Cameramen and women are colorful characters. I've met them all and I've probably argued with half of them. There's a real camaraderie among them. It's a dangerous occupation, and it's always 'safety first.' I give our directors of photography and our camera operators all the credit. Without them, we would have no good shows. They really are the backbone of any great television show."
At the time of the shooting, Dion was wearing a ballistic vest, but the bullet entered under his arm. Footage from the Cops cameras has been turned over to a grand jury to investigate.
At a press conference last month in Omaha, Cops executive producer John Langley praised Dion, who spent seven years with the show. "We've been very fortunate over the years that we've never had an incident like this. Unfortunately this happened and we're dealing with it and it's a very sad day for us."