Summit ’15: The rise and rise of true crime

A bleak socio-economic worldview among younger viewers is making true crime one of the most popular - and lucrative - genres in TV, according to programmers and researchers speaking at the Realscreen Summit. (Pictured L-R: Laura Fleury, Valerie Haselton)
January 30, 2015

The tough economy for young job seekers has been a boon for makers of true crime programming, one of the most talked-about unscripted genres at this year’s Realscreen Summit.

Over two sessions, delegates learned why crime series on cable networks such as Discovery Communications-owned Investigation Discovery (ID) and A+E Networks-owned LMN is proving so popular, particularly among younger women, as well as some of the production techniques that are essential in getting a series greenlit.

“The millennial worldview is conditioned by a bleak socio-economic outlook. For these not-so-happy campers, there is a willingness, if not outright need, to look trouble in the eye,” said Don Micallef, VP of research for Discovery Communications, during the ‘Formula For a Hit’ panel on Wednesday (January 28). “The good news is the appetite for this programming is going on for the foreseeable future.”

Presenting the results of a year-long study, Micallef explained that there is a shift in cultural attitudes between the boomer generation and millennials that informs programming decisions at the network.

Launched six years ago, ID is now a top five network for women and claims the longest length of tune in all of television among women ages 25-54. The channel, which airs programs such as Wives with Knives and Scorned: Love Kills, reaches more than 100 million homes in 157 countries and territories with global expansion plans to continue into 2015.

The study, entitled ‘Welcome to the Dark Side,’ is based on eight focus groups conducted in Bethesda, MD and Nashville, TN in January 2014. The participants were men and women 25-49 who were either viewers of ID or viewers of a genre of programming the network calls “high stakes.” The research was qualitative, meaning it is meant to be “directional and not definitive.”

The most alarming aspect of the study was the all-encompassing fear that grips younger viewers. Micallef said uncertainty in the economy has heightened millennials’ fears of homelessness, murder, rape and joblessness, in stark contrast to the boomer generation’s idealistic, “the world is my oyster” attitude. Whereas a boomer might like stories with golden-boy heroes and black-and-white moral dimensions, millennials prefer grey zones, uncertainty, situational ethics and flawed, multidimensional characters in their TV programming.

There is also a new open-mindedness for characters with mixed loyalties facing moral quandaries that stems from shifting attitudes around spirituality and global awareness. “Walking Dead is our family TV show now,” a male participant from Nashville told Discovery researchers. “How are we going to raise a baby in the post-apocalyptic world? How do you teach a young boy to be a man, when he has to learn to kill at the age of 11?”

The increase in roles for women in the workplace is also a factor. Women now worry more about homelessness and financial insolvency than women of past generations, and feel a need to face down these fears in the form of crime programming. The home is no longer their sole domain and so they rationalize watching TV shows about stalkers, rape and murder as “essential training” to avoid these situations in real life.

A loss of intimacy and personal contact resulting from increased reliance on the Internet and mobile devices has also made people feel less safe. “Our parents were safer than us,” a woman from Nashville told the researchers. “With technology, we are exposed to more. People have access to more info about you. You can find out in 30 minutes anything you want.”

don micallef rss slide

A slide from Don Micallef’s ‘Welcome To the Dark Side’ presentation.

The research aimed to identify core viewers of ID who are prone to watch darker subject matter and so it factors into programming decisions for shows designed to reach that audience. “It doesn’t apply to all programming at all,” Micallef told the panel.

On Thursday, the makers of that programming gathered on the panel “Crime Pays… And Plays” to discuss “one of the few bright spots in today’s unscripted universe,” as moderator and Atlas Media Corp. president and exec producer Bruce David Klein put it.

ID general manager Kevin Bennett explained that the physiological response viewers experience when watching true crime is akin to addiction. Most of the shows are based on a high-stakes whodunit murder plots. “You draw a circle but you don’t complete that circle,” he said.

Crime viewers also enjoy playing sports video games and going to the movies. They crave a resolution so closure is essential to success. “They’re puzzle solvers. They’re people who like to know the outcome of things,” Bennett continued. “We are a give-focus network.”

Despite the buzz around the true crime podcast Serial at this year’s Summit, Bennett is not yet convinced serialized accounts of single stories will take off. “I’m still skeptical,” he said. “Serial gives us hope that it can happen.”

“You have to deliver closure,” added LMN head of programming and development Laura Fleury (pictured above, left). “We have to go on a journey so what’s the best way to about that in a serialized way?”

In producing Frenemies and Stalked: Someone’s Watching for ID, Klein said his producers must be sensitive to the victims and their families’ feelings out of respect and to avoid legal action. Names and family relationships are changed to make a situation unidentifiable and the cases that form the basis of a show must be adjudicated.

“If the verdict is overturned, you’re in trouble,” he said, adding it is not unheard of for producers to settle a lawsuit over a niggling detail fudged in the production process for US$10,000 in order to stop it from escalating.

“We are not news,” added Valerie Haselton (pictured top, right), co-president and EP for Sirens Media. “News can get away with things that we can’t. We are entertainment, so a different set of rules apply to us.”

Although the genre has historically been a tough sell for advertisers, that situation has changed thanks in part to scripted hits such as Breaking Bad and The Walking Dead. Both ID and LMN viewers tend to stay tuned in once they tune in so sales reps sell commercials based on viewer engagement more than genre. Bennett noted that ID viewers do not tend to fast-forward commercials.

The programs have legs internationally as well. Beyond Distribution head of acquisitions Yvonne Body said there are very few territories around the world where crime programs do not sell.

“Almost everything we sell in the crime genre is out of North America,” she observed. “It’s because the victims are prepared to talk. In Britain, it’s hard to get crime victims to talk and to go on the air to tell their stories.”

The trick for producers hoping to break into crime programming is to find stories or angles that execs have not seen. ID programs 600-650 hours per year, so they hear a lot of repeats in the pitch phase.

“It’s hard to get a show on ID. If you have an idea, we’ve probably heard it five times already,” said Bennett. “If I hear one more pitch about ‘the TV version of Serial‘ I’m going to bash my head in.”

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