WCSFP ’19: Factual producers explore how to tackle true crime

TOKYO — The final day of the 2019 edition of World Congress of Science & Factual Producers kicked off today (Dec. 5), with a dive into one of the hottest ...
December 5, 2019

TOKYO — The final day of the 2019 edition of World Congress of Science & Factual Producers kicked off today (Dec. 5), with a dive into one of the hottest and enduring trends in non-fiction: true crime.

“Killer Ratings: Why Crime Pays” was moderated by Sara Ramsden, creative director of Love Productions. Speakers were Edward Hersh, founder and principal and StoryCentric; Carsten Oblaender, co-president and CEO of Story House Productions; Fatima Salaria, head of specialist factual at Channel 4; and Navid Bahadori, executive producer at Broken Yellow.

The speakers covered a lot of ground during the panel, from duty of care, to the mechanics of storytelling, to the ethics of exploitation and more.

Speaking about C4 and HBO’s Michael Jackson exposé Leaving Neverland, Salaria started things off with a discussion of the UK pubcaster’s responsibility to survivor’s of sexual abuse who come forward, including the subjects of the film, who allege that Jackson abused them as children.

“In terms of protecting the victims, we abide by Ofcom rules. We have an incredibly detailed duty of care to not just victims like this, who take part in our documentaries, but even in series that we’ve done, in specialist factual like What Makes a Murderer?, we have a very considered approach to what we want to do,” said Salaria.

“We will sit there and we will talk through the implications of what we’re going to be revealing, what we’re going to be talking about. It’s a long and very well thought-out process. Aftercare to us is incredibly important, so it doesn’t just end once the program’s gone out.”

A title like Leaving Neverland also brings up the thorny issue of libel in true crime, and whether such subjects can even be approached without a robust legal strategy.

Bahadori sidesteps the issue in his animated true crime short-form series The Twist, which focuses on stories in the past, where most of the principles are deceased.

“Our slender team of researchers of two or three maximum, we’re looking for cases where the majority of our subjects have passed, and that would give us an easier pathway in terms of legal defamation,” he explained.

That focus also allows for stories that older audiences remember and are eager to revisit, while younger audiences are brought in through the novelty of stories they’ve yet to be exposed to.

Meanwhile, Hersh broke down some of the mechanics of true crime, or what works and what audiences are looking for, which currently tends to skew towards “emotional storytelling,” he said.

“And there is what I think we’re all thinking about is the Netflix impact, which is to be more cinematic. Not the traditional recreation, or somebody pointing at a chart.”

The current trend is toward a slower narrative build up and the use of more real footage than recreations, he continued.

Having said that, Hersh also cautions producers to be aware of the different forms of true crime when pitching, and to carefully consider the types of stories they’re telling, and what the best tools are depending on the angle or approach.

“When we talk about crime programming, we’re really talking about two kinds of programs,” he explained. “There’s the incredible work that Fatima and her team did, which is really investigative programming. That is investigative journalism. There are investigative stories, and then there are stories of investigations. They tell not investigative stories, but the story of an investigation.”

The panel ended with speakers addressing a question from the audience — a question likely on everyone’s mind as true crime continues to flourish, seemingly invincible in the factual world.

The question: have we reached peak true crime? And will the true crime bubble burst?

The short answer, in the eyes of the panelists, is no. True crime is here to stay, in some form or another. Whether that means high-production values, recreations, first-person narratives, animation, or any other narrative techniques that may emerge.

True crime may change and evolve, but it’s not going anywhere.

“I don’t think we’re ever going to lose the thirst for these stories,” said Salaria.

The 2019 World Congress of Science and Factual Producers in Tokyo, Japan, wrapped up today (Dec. 5).

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