It was the butler in the library with the candlestick.
While a crime in a game of Clue might be wrapped with this simple deduction, real-life misdeeds involve perplexing circumstances and remote evidence. In board games, as in life, the more fantastic the methods needed to solve a crime, the greater the sense of awe upon discovering the truth. This goes a long way towards explaining why U.K.-based broadcaster Channel 5 acquired Autopsy, a 5 x 45-minute HBO series that looks at unusual crimes solved with the help of forensic pathologists.
‘The true crime genre has worked out extremely well for us in the last six months,’ claims Chris Shaw, controller of news, current affairs and documentaries. ‘It’s interesting, a number of other channels are now pursuing that genre quite vigorously over here, both with original commissions and with acquisitions.’
Everything from dna profiling to the study of insects and mites is used to resolve various criminal mysteries. ‘[Autopsy] identifies an extraordinary range of forensic stories,’ says Shaw. ‘They in themselves are very compelling, but the stories of how [the cases] are solved are also excellent.’ One segment includes a case in which a woman’s body is identified by the serial number of her breast implant, three years after her body is found.
‘I think there is an Agatha Christie sense about this show,’ says executive producer Gaby Monet. ‘It’s the unraveling of a mystery rather than just a presentation of a crime case.’ This is another factor which attracted Shaw, who felt Autopsy’s case-based magazine format was more entertaining then a classic documentary approach.
Autopsy’s edgy and entertaining feel also fit the three-year-old broadcaster’s general mandate, which is to find programming more ‘direct, populist and daring’ than that of its competition. Shaw positions Channel 5 as a mainstream entertainment channel with strong factual traditions, and compares the station to an adolescent Fox Network. This is reflected in the channels age demographic, which is younger than the average.
To find the pace and energy he’s looking for, Shaw often turns to the U.S. for programming, but finding something suitable is not always easy. ‘It’s not enough for us to just show pictures of buildings being blown up,’ he explains. ‘We need to have more information in there. There needs to be a spine of science.’ With this in mind, Shaw has commissioned a number of docs exploring adult themes such as sex and crime, which have similar characteristics to those found in Autopsy. Explains Shaw, ‘A lot of the time they are quite light-hearted, but they are docs. They’re not erotic mini-dramas or anything. These are serious subjects.’
Shaw acquired Autopsy through ITEL and added a British voice-over. Channel 5′s acquisition budget ranges from US$12,000 to $30,000 for 60-minute programs. According to Shaw, Autopsy was acquired ‘cheaply.’ Fully-funded domestic subjects average $50,000 for 30-minute docs and $100,000 for 60-minute docs. In addition to commissions and acquisitions, Shaw also participates in coproductions: ‘For coproductions we tend to invest the same figures, but we’re only funding roughly 30% to 40% of your average classic TLC or Discovery-type doc.’ In 1999, Channel 5 coproduced approximately 13 hours of programming with TLC.
Because of Autopsy’s somewhat gruesome nature, it was broadcast after 10:40 p.m. in the post-film slot on Tuesday nights. The slot, which is not specifically designated for factual programming, has aired several doc series of a similar nature since Autopsy aired in August 1999, including The Moors Murders, Serial Killers and Murder Detectives. Channel 5 has also increased its non-fiction output and currently commissions approximately 150 hours of docs and current affairs programs per year.