Dragnet (drama)

Missing image
Dragnet opening frame.

Dragnet was a popular, influential and long-running radio and television police procedural about the cases of a dedicated Los Angeles, California police detective, Joe Friday, and his partners. The show takes its name from an actual police term, a dragnet for any system of coordinated measures for apprehending criminals or suspects.

Dragnet was perhaps the most famous police procedural of all time. Actor and producer Jack Webb's catchphrase, 'Just the facts, ma'am', has become a permanent part of American culture. The series has been credited with dramatically improving the public image of the police in the United States.

Webb’s aims in Dragnet were for realism and unpretentious acting. He achieved both goals, and Dragnet remains a key influence on subsequent police dramas in many media.

The show's cultural impact is demonstrated by the fact that even after five decades, elements of Dragnet are known to those who've never seen or heard the program. The ominous, four-note introduction to the brass and tympani theme music (titled "Danger Ahead") is well-known, as is the show's opening narration:"Ladies and gentlemen: the story you are about to hear is true. Only the names have been changed to protect the innocent." ("Hear" was changed to "see" for the television version.) Variations on this announcement have been featured in many subsequent crime dramas, and in satires of these dramas.

On radio, Dragnet ran from June 3, 1949 to February 26 1957 on. Dragnet appeared on television from December 16 1951 to 1959, and from 1967 to 1970. All of these versions ran on NBC.




Dragnet was created and produced by Jack Webb, who starred as the terse Sgt. Friday. Webb had starred in a few mostly short-lived radio programs, but Dragnet would make him one of the major media personalities of his era.

Dragnet had its origins in Webb’s small role as a police forensic scientist in the 1948 film, film He Walked By Night, inspired by the actual murder of an LAPD officer. The film was depicted in quasi-documentary style, and Marty Wynn (an LAPD sergeant) was a technical advisor on the film. Webb and Wynn became friends, and both thought that the day-to-day activities of police officers could be realistically depicted, and could make for compelling drama without the forced sense of melodrama then so common in radio programming. Webb frequently visited police headquarters, drove with police patrols, and attended police academy courses to learn authentic jargon and other details that could be featured in a radio program. When he proposed Dragnet to NBC officials, they were not especially impressed; radio was aswarm with private investigators and crime dramas, such as Webb’s earlier Pat Novak For Hire. That program didn’t last long, but Webb had received high marks for his role as the titular private investigator, and NBC agreed to a limited run for Dragnet.<P> With writer James E. Moser, Webb prepared an audition recording, then sought the LAPD’s endorsement; he wanted to use cases from official files in order to demonstrate the steps taken by police officers during investigations. The official response was initially lukewarm, but they offered Webb the endorsement he sought. Police wanted control over the program’s sponsor, and insisted that police not be depicted unflatteringly. This would lead to some criticism, as LAPD racial segregation policies were never addressed, nor was there a suggestion of police corruption.


Dragnet debuted inauspiciously. The first several months were bumpy, as Webb and company worked out the program’s format and eventually became comfortable with their characters. Gradually, Friday’s deadpan, fast-talking persona emerged, described by John Dunning as "a cop's cop, tough but not hard, conservative but caring." (Dunning, 210) Friday’s first partner was Ben Romero, portrayed by Barton Yarburrough, a longtime radio actor. When Dragnet hit its stride, it became one of radio’s top-rated shows.<P>

Webb insisted on realism in every aspect of the show. The dialogue was clipped, understated and sparse, influenced by the hard boiled school of crime fiction. Scripts were fast moving but didn’t seem rushed. Every aspect of police work was chronicled, step by step: From patrols and paperwork, to crime scene investigation, lab work and questioning witnesses or suspects.The detectives’ personal lives were mentioned, but rarely took center stage. "Underplaying is still acting," Webb told Time. "We try to make it as real as a guy pouring a cup of coffee.” (Dunning, 209) Los Angeles police Chiefs C.B. Horrall and then William H. Parker were credited as consultants, and many police officers were fans.<P>

Webb was a stickler for accurate details, and Dragnet used many authentic touches, such as the LAPD's actual radio call sign (KMA-367), and the names of many real department officials, such as Ray Pinker and Lee Jones of the crime lab or Chief of Detectives Thad Brown.<P>

Specialized terminology was mentioned in every episode, but was rarely explained. Webb trusted the audience to determine the meanings of words or terms by their context, and furthermore, Dragnet tried to avoid the kinds of awkward, lengthy exposition that people wouldn’t actually use in daily speech. Several specialised terms (such as "A.P.B." for "All Points Bulletin" and "M.O." for "Modus Operandi") were rarely used in popular culture before Dragnet introduced them to everyday America. <P>

While most radio shows used one or two sound effects experts, Dragnet needed five; a script clocking in at just under 30 minutes could require up to 300 separate effects. Accuracy was underlined: The exact number of footsteps from one room to another at Los Angeles police headquarters were imitated, and when a telephone rang at Friday’s desk, the listener heard the same ring as the telephones in Los Angeles police headquarters. A single minute of ‘’A Gun For Christmas’’ is a representative example of the evocative sound effects featured on ‘’Dragnet’’. While Friday and others investigate bloodstains in a suburban backyard, the listener hears an overlapping aural display: a squeaking gate hinge, footsteps, a technician scraping blood into a paper envelope, the glassy chime of chemical vials, and bird calls and a dog barking in the distance.<P>

Scripts tackled a number of topics, ranging from the thrilling (murders, missing persons and armed robbery) to the mundane (check fraud and shoplifting), yet ‘’Dragnet’’ made them all interesting due to fast-moving plots and behind-the-scenes realism.<p>

Though rather tame by modern standards, Dragnet--especially on the radio--handled controversial subjects such as sex crimes and drug addiction with unprecedented and even startling realism. Dragnet broke one of the unspoken (and still rarely broached) taboos of popular entertainment when a young child was killed in ‘’A Gun For Christmas’’ (aired December, 21, 1950). The episode followed the search for eight-year-old Stevie Morheim, only to discover he’d been accidentally killed by his best friend while they played with a rifle his friend had received as a Christmas gift. Thousands of letters were mailed to NBC in complaint, including a formal protest by the National Rifle Association. Webb forwarded many of the letters to police chief Parker who promised "ten more shows illustrating the folly of giving rifles to children." (Dunning, 211)<p>

Dragnet also broke ground by sometimes ending episodes on a sad or disappointing note, at least in its radio incarnation. In 1950, Time quoted Webb: "We don’t even try to prove that crime doesn’t pay ... sometimes it does (Dunning, 210)<p> Due in part to Webb’s fondness for radio drama, Dragnet persisted on radio until 1957 as one of the last old time radio shows to give way to television’s increasing popularity. <p>


When television was interested in Dragnet, Webb bucked the prevailing wisdom which argued that radio staff couldn’t adapt to the new medium. He insisted on hiring radio staff (from actors to writers and production staff) as much as was feasible to work on the television version. This loyalty would endear Webb to many of his Dragnet colleagues for decades to come.<p>

Dragnet first aired on television in January of 1952. Friday's original partner in the TV episodes (as on the radio) was Sgt. Ben Romero, played by Barton Yarborough, who died after only three episodes were filmed. The Romero character was soon replaced by Officer Frank Smith, played by Ben Alexander on both television and radio. Alexander continued in the role through the show's original run, which ended in 1959. <P>

While Dragnet was still on the air, reruns began to air in syndication as Badge 714. <P>

Two other hallmarks of the TV show came at the end of each episode:

  • The arrested criminal stands uncomfortably, presumably for the mug shot and the fate of the perpetrators is stated, as a verdict of a court "in and for the City and County of Los Angeles" on an appropriate date.
  • A left hand appeared, holding what would turn out to be stamp for indenting metal; a heavy hammer struck the top of the handle of the stamp, twice, loudly; the stamp was removed to reveal the result, "MK VII", referring to the production company, Mark Seven Productions. It would later be revealed that the two hands were in fact, those of Jack Webb.</DIV>

In 1954, a theatrical movie of the same name aired, with Webb, Alexander, and Richard Boone.

In 1966, a TV movie, also called Dragnet, aired. Starring Jack Webb and Harry Morgan as his partner Bill Gannon, it spawned a new series, Dragnet 1967, which aired until 1970, the title year changing with each season.

In 1982, when Jack Webb died, the Chief of the Los Angeles Police Department announced that badge number 714--Webb’s badge number on the television show--was retired, and Los Angeles city offices lowered their flags to half-mast.


In 1987, a comedy movie version of Dragnet appeared, starring Dan Aykroyd as the stiff Joe Friday (the original Detective Friday's nephew), and Tom Hanks as his partner Pep Streebeck. The film contrasted the terse, clipped character of Friday, a hero from another age, with the 'real world' of Los Angeles in 1987. Beyond Ackroyd’s effective imitation of Webb’s Joe Friday (and Harry Morgan’s small role reprising his earlier role as Bill Gannon), this film version shares little with the previous incarnations.</DIV>

In 1989, The New Dragnet appeared in first-run syndication, featuring all-new characters, and in 2003 another Dragnet series was produced by Dick Wolf, the producer of Law & Order, a series that was strongly influenced by Dragnet. The most recent version starred Ed O'Neill as Joe Friday, and after a season that rather closely followed the traditional formula, the format of the series was changed to an ensemble crime drama similar to CSI: Crime Scene Investigation. With this change came a new title, L.A. Dragnet and it focused less on Joe Friday. With most of the trappings that made Dragnet unique no longer in place, it became just another cops and robbers series and it was canceled only five episodes into its second season. Another three episodes aired on USA Network in early 2004, with two final episodes as yet unaired. A total of 22 episodes were produced.

Dragnet and Popular Culture

Dragnet has been referenced or spoofed numerous times, notwithstanding the 1987 film version.

  • James Ellroy featured a thinly-veiled reference to Dragnet in his L.A. Confidential novel; the popular television police drama called Badge of Honor (also depicted briefly in the film version of L.A. Confidential.) Ellroy’s perspective on Los Angeles cops as crooked and vice-ridden contrasts sharply with Webb’s portrayals of police.

External links


  • John Dunning, On The Air: The Encyclopedia of Old-Time Radio, Oxford University Press, 1998, ISBN0195076788
fr:Badge 714


  • Art and Cultures
    • Art (https://academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/Art)
    • Architecture (https://academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/Architecture)
    • Cultures (https://www.academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/Cultures)
    • Music (https://www.academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/Music)
    • Musical Instruments (http://academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/List_of_musical_instruments)
  • Biographies (http://www.academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/Biographies)
  • Clipart (http://www.academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/Clipart)
  • Geography (http://www.academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/Geography)
    • Countries of the World (http://www.academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/Countries)
    • Maps (http://www.academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/Maps)
    • Flags (http://www.academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/Flags)
    • Continents (http://www.academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/Continents)
  • History (http://www.academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/History)
    • Ancient Civilizations (http://www.academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/Ancient_Civilizations)
    • Industrial Revolution (http://www.academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/Industrial_Revolution)
    • Middle Ages (http://www.academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/Middle_Ages)
    • Prehistory (http://www.academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/Prehistory)
    • Renaissance (http://www.academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/Renaissance)
    • Timelines (http://www.academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/Timelines)
    • United States (http://www.academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/United_States)
    • Wars (http://www.academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/Wars)
    • World History (http://www.academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/History_of_the_world)
  • Human Body (http://www.academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/Human_Body)
  • Mathematics (http://www.academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/Mathematics)
  • Reference (http://www.academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/Reference)
  • Science (http://www.academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/Science)
    • Animals (http://www.academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/Animals)
    • Aviation (http://www.academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/Aviation)
    • Dinosaurs (http://www.academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/Dinosaurs)
    • Earth (http://www.academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/Earth)
    • Inventions (http://www.academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/Inventions)
    • Physical Science (http://www.academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/Physical_Science)
    • Plants (http://www.academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/Plants)
    • Scientists (http://www.academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/Scientists)
  • Social Studies (http://www.academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/Social_Studies)
    • Anthropology (http://www.academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/Anthropology)
    • Economics (http://www.academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/Economics)
    • Government (http://www.academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/Government)
    • Religion (http://www.academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/Religion)
    • Holidays (http://www.academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/Holidays)
  • Space and Astronomy
    • Solar System (http://www.academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/Solar_System)
    • Planets (http://www.academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/Planets)
  • Sports (http://www.academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/Sports)
  • Timelines (http://www.academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/Timelines)
  • Weather (http://www.academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/Weather)
  • US States (http://www.academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/US_States)


  • Home Page (http://academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php)
  • Contact Us (http://www.academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/Contactus)

  • Clip Art (http://classroomclipart.com)
Personal tools