While true crime’s status as the genre du jour is evident across streaming sites such as Netflix, and podcasts such as Serial and S Town, one cable network in particular is reaping the benefits — and has been for a decade. Realscreen takes a close look at Investigation Discovery’s first decade.
by Kelly Boutsalis
The demand for true crime is palpable – audiences across platforms are eating up gruesome tales of affairs gone wrong, people falsely (and correctly) accused of murder, and all the other hallmarks of the extremely hot genre.
In 2017, Investigation Discovery execs can rattle off impressive facts and figures about being the most popular network in America for unscripted true stories, among women 25-54, in total day; number one for length of tune for the P25-54 demo; and a Peabody award for Deborah S. Esquenazi’s doc Southwest of Salem: The Story of the San Antonio Four. But the cable net had very humble beginnings 10 years ago.
ID’s story begins with a network rebrand in January 2008 from Discovery Times, a joint venture with The New York Times. The Times pulled out of the partnership in 2006.
Kevin Bennett and Jane Latman, currently the general manager and EVP of development and research, respectively, have both worked at the network since its inception.
Bennett, then the head of programming, tells realscreen that while the team was weighing possibilities for its rebrand, two things coincided to make ID happen: Court TV transitioned to TruTV, and Discovery Channel moved away from the crime genre for strategic reasons, leaving an opening for a new home for true crime programming.
ID inherited some of Discovery’s crime shows, such as repeats of New Detectives, FBI Files, and Deadly Women, the latter of which is still being produced by Beyond Productions for ID. Its 11th season just aired in Q4 2017. “I say all the time that it’s a show that predates the network,” says Bennett.
“I was the one aggressively pursuing those shows and while we were still named the Discovery Times Network, the ratings started to take off for us,” he adds. “That made it really easy for me and a handful of folks who were here at the time to relaunch as a crime network called Investigation Discovery.”
Bennett recalls that it was a small team working across all disciplines, screening acquisitions and looking through rough cuts.
While programming in that era ran the gamut from such series as The Interrogation Room (not to be confused with the new series of the same name airing on Discovery) to The Real NCIS and Undercover, Bennett says it wasn’t until ID got into what he calls the “second wave of shows,” such as long-running series I Almost Got Away with It and Disappeared, that the focus of the programming solidified.
“We really built the channel show by show, hour by hour,” says Latman. “What has led to our incredible success is that we listened to the audience. From day one, we paid close attention to what they’re responding to, what they’re not responding to, and [we] pivot towards what they want to see.
“There’s a scientific approach and good old-fashioned gut.”
For the second wave of shows, Bennett says the team learned that mystery-oriented storytelling worked. “If we started out with a story that we knew had an ending, we could tell it in a way to present it as a mystery,” he explains. “We had twists and turns, and red herrings. [With] all the programs in the early days, that was the hallmark of what we did.”
Another turning point for the burgeoning network was the arrival of Henry S. Schleiff in 2009. Schleiff, the group president of ID, American Heroes Channel, and Destination America, came to the network with a confidence in ID that bolstered the team around him.
“I don’t think we had time to catch our breath, to understand what we were doing and see what the potential was, until Henry came in,” says Bennett. “[Then] we got our legs under us a bit. We certainly had a lot of success in those early days, but there wasn’t a driving strategy.
“He’s just been such a guiding force for us,” Bennett adds. “We had the building blocks there but it was really Henry’s vision that helped make it a top 10 network.”
Latman recalls when Schleiff joined the network, ID was ranked in the 40s, and he predicted that it would become a top 20 network. “We all looked at each other and said, ‘Is that possible?’ And he made it happen.”
From the time that Schleiff joined the network in 2009 to today, ID has gone from 54 million homes to more than 86 million.
“Eight or nine years ago, I walked into [president and CEO of Discovery Communications] David Zaslav’s office and I said, ‘You have this small struggling network called Investigation Discovery and I think it could have a much brighter future,’” says Schleiff. “With the people here, and his support, I think I said to him that I could make this a top 10 [network].”
“[True crime] wasn’t being fully pursued day-in and day-out, 24/7 by any other network. We collectively had the recognition that this could be something that we own, and we did and we have,” he says.
What Schleiff dubs the “perfect storm” of corporate support, executive talent, and the intent to own the true crime genre, has led to milestones such as a meeting in September 2015 that Bennett describes as “drilled into my brain.”
“Ryan Alloway [manager of research, ID] came to my office door all out of breath saying that we were number one for day delivery for women,” he recalls. “It was totally out of the blue, and it got us some respect, and helped our ad sales team make inroads on deals. It was a landmark moment.”
Another recent highlight for the network was the ratings win for Casey Anthony: An American Murder Mystery in April 2017. The first episode was ranked number one on all television, beating out CBS and NBC during its timeslot. It was a record-breaking series for ID that delivered more than 4 million total viewers.
“For someone like me, who was here before this was a network, it was unbelievable to see that happen in nine years,” says Bennett.
Jupiter Entertainment was one of the producers on the Casey Anthony series, with Weinstein Television and American Media, and is also the prodco behind the long-running ID series Homicide Hunter: Lt Joe Kenda.
Jupiter’s CEO and executive producer Stephen Land says its long relationship with ID hasn’t changed over the years. “Despite incredible success, they still operate in much the same fashion; their team, frankly, has not grown as dramatically as we’ve seen in some other instances at other networks.”
Production partners realscreen spoke with applaud the core ID executives who have dedicated eight to 10 years honing their true crime development and acquisition skills.
“It’s incredible when I stop to think about it — we have the same executives currently on three of our shows that we’ve had from the very beginning. We’re all getting grey hairs together,” says Valerie Haselton, co-president of Sirens Media.
The Silver Spring-based prodco has produced hundreds of hours of true crime for ID — series including The Nightmare Next Door, Evil Stepmothers and Who the [Bleep] Did I Marry? — dating back to the early days of the network.
“We were back in the ‘Wild West’ days when ID just needed tons of content. Jane would call me up and give me a 40-hour order and if she did that today I would drop to my knees and sob for joy,” Haselton says.
The popularity spike for true crime across other platforms doesn’t ruffle any feathers at ID, despite the fact that they could be considered competitors.
Schleiff says that Netflix, HBO and others who have found success in the true crime genre are creating more of an appetite for the content. “There is only one restaurant open all night long, every day of the year, and that is ID,” he maintains. “The predictability of saying, ‘I know when I go to ID at any time, I will find a story just like the one I enjoyed and watched somewhere else,’ is almost the ultimate marketing tool for [us.]”
For producer partners who have grown along with the network, the proliferation of true crime content has been a boon for business, but perhaps has also strengthened their relationships with ID. ”We certainly pitch more people crime now — we need to keep the lights on — but we have such a soft spot for ID [as] they’ve been with us for all this time, and frankly their execs know exactly what they want,” says Haselton. “They’re empowered by their upper management to make decisions so you’re not caught in a vacuum of indecision.”
Arrow Media’s creative director Tom Brisley has been working with ID since 2012, with its first project for the net being See No Evil (a coproduction with Toronto-based Saloon Media). He remembers his early experiences working with Winona Meringolo, VP of development, and Latman, as refreshing.
“They know what they want, they know their audience and it was very straightforward business,” he recalls. “I don’t want to sound too gushing but from the editorial, commissioning, business affairs, and production side, it went really well, and that’s not something you can say happens often.”
Brisley says a memorable moment happened in the shaping of the six-part series American Monsters, which debuted in the summer of 2016. The show used home footage of its featured killers in their day-to-day lives, including wedding clips and more, giving a different window into the criminal mind.
“When the first home movie footage came in, we played it and realized that if you don’t have any narration on it, and you play it long, it really draws you in as a viewer,” recalls Brisley. “We sent the first rough cut and we thought we’d played it long. ID came back and said, ‘Play it longer,’ and wow, they were absolutely right. We’re now delivering season two.”
Land says if you counted the number of small prodcos that have worked with ID in the past 10 years, it would be staggering.
Red Marble Media is one of those small indies, whose first series as a company was delivered for ID.
“They met with Stephen [Dost, Red Marble's VP of development] and I, thought we had great ideas, and a resume, but as a young company we’d never done a series before,” says Red Marble’s president and executive producer Kevin Fitzpatrick.
ID took a risk on the fledgling prodco and once it delivered the show My Dirty Little Secret, the network kept buying more.
“The relationship with ID is the most important relationship we’ve had for the growth of the company,” Fitzpatrick says. “This was a network that was willing to take us on our merit, and not on the size of our company, and consequently we’ve been able to grow from that.”
On the flip side, the network has also attracted veteran filmmakers such as Werner Herzog, Barbara Kopple, Joe Berlinger, and talent such as Paula Zahn.
Latman says that acclaimed filmmakers come to ID because the network lets them make the films they want to make.
“We want to work with them to hear their voice, not to tell them what ours is,” she says. “One of the reasons they come to us is the platform — we reach so many people as the number one cable network for women, so they know they’re going to reach a lot of eyeballs.”
The final word, concerning the biggest challenge for the network, belongs to Schleiff.
“Believe it or not, it’s that it is ‘only 10 years old,’” he says. “We’re relatively young in the world of cable networks. There’s still a huge portion of the audience that doesn’t know that ID exists … For the next 10 years, that’s something we’re going to continue to do better and brighter than before.”
- This article first appeared in the January/February 2018 issue of realscreen magazine, which is out now. Not a subscriber? Click here for more information.