Viewpoints: True Crime – a growing obsession or healthy fascination?

Koulla Anastasi is director of international development at London-based factual producer Woodcut Media where she leads on driving and expanding the company’s international activities, building on its international slate of crime ...
October 9, 2019

Koulla Anastasi is director of international development at London-based factual producer Woodcut Media where she leads on driving and expanding the company’s international activities, building on its international slate of crime programming, forging new global partnerships and developing projects outside of the UK. Prior to joining Woodcut, Koulla was director of programming for Crime + Investigation (CI) and Lifetime at A+E Networks UK. Here, she examines the factors behind the explosion of the true crime genre.

“Is our growing obsession with true crime a problem?”, despaired a recent BBC News Online article, in which the writer, while examining the premise, admits that programming within the genre is her ‘default way to unwind’.

Indeed, understanding just why true crime TV broke free from its factual ghetto and moved fervently into the mainstream has been a staple discussion point since Making a Murderer landed in December 2015.

During my years as programming, and later network lead for A+E Networks’ Crime + Investigation brands in the UK and EMEA, I was very familiar with what drives and motivates a middle-aged woman to tune in to nearly two hours of murder and mayhem almost daily. Producers I met were often surprised to hear that the target audience was indeed women in the 50+ age range, and this wasn’t just Crime + Investigation’s key demographic as all true crime networks skew female, including market leader Investigation Discovery, whose audience represents a 70:30 female to male split.

When you consider the fact that women are by far the biggest consumers of crime fiction novels and drama, then the above statistic should not come as a great surprise. And it’s not a just a uniquely British pastime of course, even though the Brits have had an established reputation for creating some of the world’s classic murder-mysteries, from Agatha Christie to Inspector Morse.

So, what drives this distinct audience to tune in to the most harrowing of documentaries, night after night and in increasing numbers?  Is this all down to the ‘Making a Murderer‘ effect or is it something else? 

At its heart, every true crime show, whether it is A&E’s The First 48, ID’s Homicide Hunter or ITV’s recent Psychopath with Piers Morgan, shines a light on the extremes of human behavior – and therein lies the ongoing fascination. The common themes threaded through most crime stories are the core human traits of love, revenge, greed or sexual jealousy distorted in the extreme – leading to murder. And our propensity for homicidal narratives dates back to Euripides and classical times.

However, the difference with true crime is that these are not works of fiction or theater but real lives: someone’s wife or daughter, someone’s lover or associate whose tragedy is being deconstructed in primetime. Mainstream commentators are quick to criticize the upsurge of true crime’s popularity as disrespectful or insensitive to the victims’ stories or their family’s heartache.  In fact, I would argue that as producers (and this goes for the networks as well) we are acutely aware of our moral and regulatory responsibility to victims and their loved ones; no one is in the business of celebrating murder, far from it.

The very best of true crime produced in recent years places the testimony of those closest to the victim at the very heart of the narrative, for their story is always the most powerful and memorable. While no one would wish to be in the shoes of a mother whose teenage daughter has been missing and presumed dead for over 25 years, we can all empathize with her sorrow. ‘There, but for the grace of God’ is a powerful motivator to tune in, particularly in these uncertain times.

My theory remains that the exposure and attention given to Making a Murderer in 2015 and the many notable series that followed has meant that tuning in to this genre is no longer seen as a ‘guilty pleasure’.

True crime networks continue to focus their commissioning efforts on their loyal group of mostly female superfans, who are drawn to emotionally impactful story-telling, a complex murder-mystery that allows them to play amateur detective, a charismatic investigator who unlocks the case with a ‘Columbo moment’ and a perpetrator brought to justice in the final act. But on the fringes is a huge and potentially untapped younger audience which is also obsessed and knowledgeable about true crime. This group is responding to the premium production values, nuanced and serialized narratives and superior archive use that characterizes recent crime docs such as ESPN’s exemplary and Academy Award-winning, OJ: Made in America.

The Disappearance of Madeleine McCann was widely criticized in the UK press this year for largely retelling an already well-reported case with no new information, but to the wholly-VOD watching Netflix viewer, it was all brand new information.

As true crime documentaries continue to evolve, so does the viewing audience which continues to grow and expand. A whole host of new outlets has also led to increased competition among producers for the biggest scoop, the best access or the latest exclusive and this demand has challenged factual producers to constantly rethink how best and cleverly to portray a murder-mystery — because all superfans, new and old, will find a way of watching on any platform available.

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