In the beginning there was Cops.
Before reality TV became its own genre, Langley Productions’ Cops followed police officers in the line of duty responding to calls and chasing down criminals. Today, while Cops is still airing on Fox and attracting audiences who want some action with their arrests, crime and justice programming continues to evolve. Now, viewers not only ride shotgun in police cars, but they also get to look into interrogation rooms, spend time inside homicide units and hear first person accounts from both victims and perpetrators of crimes.
Part of this evolution stems from the expectations of audiences. Viewers have grown accustomed to looking behind the scenes of criminal investigations through popular, long-running series such as the Law & Order and CSI franchises, and they expect their non-fiction programming to give them the same view. They want to follow the investigators through every clue, every bit of forensic testing and every suspect to solve the crime along with the experts.
‘[Viewers] want to play along, so we sprinkle bread crumbs for them along the way to follow the trail,’ says Ed Hersh, who has watched the genre expand throughout his time at A&E and Court TV (now truTV) all the way through to his current position as SVP, strategic planning at Investigation Discovery. He feels that what he calls the ‘CSI effect’ – viewers’ familiarity with the criminal process, no matter how fictionalized, through dramatic programs – has helped to develop a more sophisticated audience for crime and investigation non-fiction programming. ‘You no longer have to say to that audience, ‘Luminol, a chemical that is sprayed in order to show that….” says Hersh. ‘They know what luminol is.’
This sophistication puts the onus on producers and broadcasters to deliver programming that goes as deep into the investigations as the investigators do. Part of the key to delivering on this expectation is access, says Robert Sharenow, SVP non-fiction and alternative programming for A&E. Since its beginnings, A&E has aired crime and justice programming and it has developed key relationships with law enforcement, from the U.S. Marshals Service for shows like Manhunters to the homicide units it works with for The First 48. ‘These are relationships that rely on deep access and that is something that is relatively new,’ says Sharenow.
One perhaps more surprising statistic regarding crime and justice fanatics is that a good percentage of them are female. Channels that focus specifically on this genre, such as Investigation Discovery and AETN International’s Crime and Investigation Network (CI), draw in significantly larger groups of female viewers than they do male, and an older audience in the 25 to 54 demo. When CI launched in the UK in 2006, channel director Richard Melman remembers the staff was initially surprised by this skew.
‘One curious tale is that we were getting some really good spikes at three and four in the morning,’ says Melman. ‘I couldn’t work out why we were getting such big audiences, until one of my team came back from maternity leave and pointed out it was breast feeding [time].’
This seems like a bizarre type of programming to turn to while feeding a baby, but Hersh says the reason women come back to Investigation Discovery is not necessarily for the frightening stories that are sometimes told through crime and justice programs, but rather to follow a mystery from start to finish. ‘The stories are played out more like ‘stories,’ where there’s a mystery and characters,’ says Hersh. ‘The stories of investigation, the forensic procedurals; those may appeal more to women.’ Sharenow agrees, saying women are drawn to programs with dramatic story arcs, something this genre delivers. Non-fiction crime and justice programming tends to play out much like a scripted drama, with a fully formed beginning, middle and an end.
This is also a very dedicated audience. Women who tune into these channels track crime and justice programming around the dial, and once they find a show that interests them they stick around. ‘Some of our [more] loyal audience members tend to watch us for sometimes 80 minutes at a time, which is unheard of,’ says Hersh. ‘We have an incredibly high audience engagement factor. [When] you think of people surfing and hitting that button constantly, our viewers don’t.’
The demand for crime and justice programming is clearly exemplified through the numbers flocking to specialty channels that cater to this genre. Investigation Discovery delivers programming to 55 million households in the U.S. and expanded into 18 other countries in 2009, including the UK and Greece. AETN’s CI reaches over 20 million households in 87 territories and, according to Sharenow, had a 350% increase in U.S. subscriptions in 2009. ‘To explode that much in a year is indicative of the kind of hunger there is for this kind of stuff, and to have that enormous growth is pretty extraordinary,’ says Sharenow.
Outside of the channels that specialize in crime and justice programming, nets as varied at TLC, CBS and CBC are finding success with true crime programming as well. Yvonne Body, London-based head of acquisitions and coproductions for Beyond Distribution, says that the increase in audience appetite for this genre led Beyond to create a dedicated section for crime and justice in its annual catalog in 2009. She’s finding that even children’s programmers are looking for milder versions of this type of material, such as the Beyond-distributed title Kid Detectives which airs on Seven in Australia and depicts kids using forensic science to solve everyday mysteries around the home.
Melman has also seen a change in the appetite for this genre since the beginning of CI. ‘When we launched we had the field pretty much to ourselves. Now we have a direct competitor in Discovery [ID] and we have quite a few other channels running a significant amount of crime in their schedule, including mainstream channels and various others,’ he notes.
While the evolution of this genre continues, some things remain the same. Viewers want a well-considered story, full of facts that lead to a verdict in the end. Therefore, Melman finds tackling breaking stories isn’t a successful strategy. And while the stories will be chilling, the viewers aren’t necessarily the same people who would be watching horror movies, so the visuals must not be too gory or graphic. The essential elements of a crime and justice program remain drama, emotion, high stakes and a puzzle that needs to be solved.
‘I think that is one of the reasons that this genre has been so enduring,’ says Hersh. ‘It has all those elements and it starts with a great story. To the extent that we can tell great stories, that’s how we can be successful.’