True crime: Execs discuss how to evolve “a perennial favorite”

Widespread demand for true crime content is showing no signs of abating, and the glut of material in the market and already available on TV and streamers (and podcasts) means the ...
May 19, 2021

Widespread demand for true crime content is showing no signs of abating, and the glut of material in the market and already available on TV and streamers (and podcasts) means the bar for producing in the genre is higher than ever as buyers compete for pitches that stand out.

The brand of true crime that has lived on cable and broadcast continues to pull in audiences on linear, WME partner Ryan McNeily explains, as newer iterations find a home on streaming, where the bingeable doc category naturally thrives. Even more, the genre’s fanbase was buoyed over the last year as greater numbers of consumers ditched cable in favor of VOD.

“True crime has become a perennial favorite of almost every single buyer,” McNeily, who works in the talent agency’s non-scripted film and TV department, says. “There’s starting to be an evolved ecosystem of what true crime exists where — meaning, the filmmaker-led stuff and really authored material is tending to find homes at the streamers. We’re seeing more and more really high price points paid for really highly developed material.”

The category itself has become one of those most heavily mined in documentary, he says, and your typical murder fare isn’t, on the surface, all that exciting to buyers anymore. What cuts through can vary — the filmmaker, the archival material, an exceptional character or access can give a pitch an edge, McNeily says.

“I also think a lot of filmmakers and producers are finding ways to evolve the genre,” he adds. “I think we’re going to see a mashup of sub-genres in the larger umbrella of true crime as a way to not only push the whole space forward but also differentiate show to show so that the consumers are getting something different.”

That evolution is already underway. In March, UK pubcaster Channel 4 announced it had ordered Murder Island, a cross-format that combines factual entertainment and crime drama, from STV Studios and Motion Content Group.

TV One senior director of original programming and production Susan Henry says producers are drawing on an arsenal of tools to tell true crime stories in new, compelling ways. The Urban One-owned network’s recently premiered Sins of the City, which promises to expose the darker sides of cities across the U.S., is one example.

“You’re seeing different versions of true crime stories being told, across multiple platforms, and there’s an audience for all of it,” she says. “No matter how the story is told, people will gravitate toward it because there’s just a fascination with the behavior of human beings.’

Even still, predicting the next true crime hit remains the “million dollar question,” says Stan Hsue, SVP of development at Lion Television USA producers of Investigation Discovery’s Diabolical and Hometown Homicide (pictured).

“The stories need to be bigger and noisier,” he explains. “In the post Tiger King-era, characters are also crucial. The true crime audience is evolving. Now more than ever, true crime viewers are incredibly discerning, and they’re not monolithic. Some want a great mystery, some want social or cultural commentary, some are looking for an emotional gut punch. There are some viewers who want cut and dried answers and others are happy with ambiguity. So, it’s complicated.

“I think above all, viewers pride authenticity,” he adds. “I look around on true crime message boards and fans are brutal if they think something is fake or too constructed.”

TV One’s Henry echoes Hsue, explaining fans are increasingly engaged in the storytelling process.

“The genre is strong and has been strong from the minute it hit airwaves, and I don’t think that that’s going to change anytime soon,” she says. “You’ll see different iterations of how we tell these stories, and what parts of the stories we actually share. The audience clearly is interested in what goes on in these different shows — and they are very, very vocal on digital and social. They engage in the storytelling process, and oftentimes you’ll find people talking about different components of a case.”

That engagement means producers in the genre are held accountable to an evolving set of standards and ethics when it comes to bringing often tragic real life stories to the screen.

In April, New York Times TV critic Margaret Lyons penned the article, “Please stop with the cheesy documentary re-enactments,” calling on the true crime genre to axe “half-hearted filler visuals” that hinder a compelling story. Los Angeles Times‘ TV critic Lorraine Ali, meanwhile, wrote in February that Netflix’s Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel relied too heavily on the “salacious” aspects of the stories it told, making the series “more exploitative than revealing,” Ali said.

“We take our responsibility incredibly seriously,” Hsue maintains. “The last thing that we want to do is re-traumatize victims, or their families. So to do justice to these stories, first and foremost, we make sure we get the facts right. It seems like such an obvious thing, but in true crime especially, the smallest detail matters for both the investigation and all the people personally affected by the story. So, we always strive to embrace the nuance and shades of grey with each story rather than take shortcuts.”

Henry agrees.

“We always have a sensitivity to that no matter what we’re covering,” she says. “Moving forward, based on what’s going on in the world and how everyone has been impacted by the pandemic and all of the components that are connected to that, we’ve seen a huge loss of life, and I think oftentimes true crime is tied to the same thing: loss of life, loss of freedom… When we were all out before living our lives and doing our own thing, we weren’t as focused on those types of issues, necessarily, but I think there’s been a heightened sensitivity to that across the globe.”

In addition to the pandemic, 2020 saw the film and TV industry face a reckoning over a lack of meaningful diversity in front of and behind the camera. And while the doc side of true crime may not have garnered as much controversy as “ride-along” shows such as A&E’s Live PD or Paramount Network’s Cops, it remains dominated by white voices and stories.

“This is a prediction-slash-hope that the true crime boom will bring a lot more diversity in terms of the types of storytelling, as well as who’s telling the stories, and whose stories are being told,” Hsue says. “From my perspective, BIPOC voices are still very rare in the genre both off and on the screen. That is something that I think will have to change in the future.”

Coming out on the other side of 2020, producers are drawing on the learnings of the last year to create true crime safely.

“We’ve had a lot of success using a combination of remote shooting kits and remote monitoring, as well as local producers and EPs,” Hsue says. “The pandemic has caused a huge strain on law enforcement agencies, as well as just the general public, so we have to factor in extra time to secure interviews or get records or other archives. In the end I feel like true crime as a whole has been able to handle the pandemic relatively well.”

WME’s McNeily agrees, adding the past year has been a busy time for non-scripted film and TV.

“That’s largely because everyone in the genre was hyper-aware that we were going to be the most agile, and probably the fastest to start up again in response to the pandemic,” he says. “We spent a lot of time since March of last year, thinking about true crime ideas and developing them with filmmakers and producers.”

Now, McNeily predicts the genre will attract A-list filmmakers and creators looking to break into non-scripted.

“It’s widely becoming very respected and becoming very interesting to a lot of creators. I think we’re going to see a lot of people that maybe have spent their career solely in the narrative space start to really dip their toe into the non-fiction category and for a lot of those folks, the entry point will be in the true crime space,” he adds.

Thankfully, for those just stepping into the world of true crime, the appetite isn’t going away anytime soon.

As TV One’s Henry summarizes, “It’s hard to turn away.”

Photo: Investigation Discovery 

About The Author
Jillian Morgan is the Associate Editor at Realscreen with a background in journalism and digital marketing. She joined the publication in 2019 after serving as the assistant editor to trade publications HPAC and On-Site. With a bachelor of journalism from the University of King's College in Halifax, she also works as a freelance writer and fact-checker.