Archive focus: Going gritty for true crime content

In the first of a multi-part archive report, realscreen explores how UGC, CCTV and amateur-shot footage is playing an increasingly important role in the production of true crime content.
June 14, 2016

Eighteen months ago, network execs and researchers gathered at the Realscreen Summit to dissect the trends and socio-economic conditions fueling the rise of true crime programming.

Crime has long been a staple of television documentary, but the successes of serialized programs such as HBO’s The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst and Netflix’s Making a Murderer have given rise to a new strain of single-storyline series, from National Geographic Channel’s Missing Deal to Discovery Channel’s Killing Fields.

As 2016 reaches its mid-way point, another trend in crime programming is on the rise and it’s a familiar one: user-generated video.

Last year, an episode of Investigation Discovery’s See No Evil attracted 1.8 million viewers – enough to make it the network’s number one series in 2015. The net has since picked up a second season from UK indie Arrow Media and Canada’s Saloon Media.

See No Evil retraces crimes using closed-circuit television (CCTV) footage taken from cameras in parking lots, stores, ATM machines and private residences, which are then fleshed out with interviews, recreations, amateur footage and archive from other sources.

In the wake of the show’s popularity, ID is ramping up its focus on crime stories built around such gritty footage.

“The big change for us has been people filming on their cellphones,” explains Sara Kozak, Investigation Discovery’s senior VP and head of production. “After the success of See No Evil we’ve looked at all the different ways that footage captured at homes – whether it’s on 16 mm or latterly on phones – can be used. That’s definitely going to be more present in our series going forward.”

Often this footage is introduced as evidence in criminal trials, making it relatively easy to obtain. For Kozak, archive is the second most important element in her shows after interviews, with recreations coming in third.

However, ethical concerns can arise when the amateur footage is shot by a perpetrator, as was the case in a 2014 killing spree in Isla Vista, California that left six people dead and many others wounded.

On May 23, 22-year-old Elliot Rodger went on a violent rampage with a knife, machete and three automatic hand guns before taking his own life. On the day of the attack, he uploaded a self-shot video to YouTube in which he outlined his plan and explained that he wanted to punish women for rejecting him.

ITN Productions produced a quick-turnaround documentary, The Virgin Killer, for Channel 4 in the UK and A&E in the U.S. that summed up the crime like so: “A mass murder for the digital age, told by the killer himself.”

Although the documentary features a narrator, it frequently cuts back to the footage of Rodger talking to the camera in his car on the day of the murders, and quotes from an autobiography called My Twisted World that he emailed to a dozen friends and family members.

“We were able to more or less use him and his original voice as a narrator in that program,” explains Ian Russell, ITN Productions’ head of international programs, adding that the material was public domain.

If the footage is not in the public domain or available via private individuals, it can be sourced via specialist agencies that deal in user-generated footage for caught-on-camera type shows.

In the case of The Virgin Killer, the challenge was not procurement – the wealth of available material is what led the networks to greenlight – but an ethical one: how to incorporate Rodger’s voice while sticking to the facts and not ceding to his version of events.

“We stuck to his quotes where he was describing what happened. If he had a subjective opinion about something we immediately buttressed it with a contextualization from a psychologist or someone else so he was never really allowed to ‘own’ the program.”

  • This article first appeared in the May/June 2016 issue of realscreen magazine. Not a subscriber? Click here for more information.
About The Author
Jonathan Paul is a Toronto-based writer into creativity, content, advertising, tech, comics, video games, film, TV, time and space travel.