CBS Reality’s Sam Rowden

Sam Rowden, VP of content and production at AMC Networks International, tells TV Real about the current acquisitions wish list, co-production strategy and taking an expert-led approach to programming for CBS Reality.

Positioned as the home of authentic criminal cases that intrigue, engage and entertain, CBS Reality UK has leaned into a sweet spot of true-crime content. The channel has gone from being largely acquisitions-driven to an active commissioner and co-producer for programming inspired by real life.

***Image***TV REAL: What’s guiding CBS Reality’s content strategy at present?
ROWDEN: Our strategy is driven by our audience. We strive to understand what works well with our audience—what they like and what they want to see more of. It is why our series are always expert-led; we deal with the real facts by looking at crimes from different angles and feature experts from different professional fields who bring amazing insight to our original series and documentaries.

We regularly engage the true-crime community through research panels to put forward ideas and gauge appetite around the subject matter we cover and the experts we use. As a direct result of this research, we work with fantastic experts in their field, such as forensic pathologist Dr. Richard Shepherd and Jackie Malton, ex-detective chief inspector with the Metropolitan Police and the inspiration behind the award-winning series The Real Prime Suspect, as well as crime historian Dr. Nell Darby and a whole host of others.

TV REAL: What is the rough breakdown between commissions and acquisitions?
ROWDEN: We started as a purely acquisitions-driven channel, but over time, we have been building on our local, original and exclusive content, which gives the audience more of an appointment to view. Currently, approximately 75 percent of our prime-time spend is original commissions, and we have plans to significantly increase this in the next 12 months in the U.K. Our own produced series are easily the most successful content on the channel, with eight out of the ten highest rating broadcasts on the channel being CBS Reality original productions.

TV REAL: What types of shows is CBS Reality looking at for originals?
ROWDEN: We are looking to commission further true-crime documentaries, docuseries and long-running series for CBS Reality. We work with a lot of great producers on our acclaimed CBS Reality true-crime originals, some of which include Emporium Productions, the company behind Donal MacIntyre’s Released to Kill; Peninsula Television, which has produced 78 episodes of Evidence of Evil for us with a further 26 in discussion; and Monster Films, the makers of Murder by the Sea, which we have commissioned up to eight seasons of and a brand-new upcoming series, Wrongly Accused. Wrongly Accused is a completely new format for us and will document five cases, each told over two hours, with the first hour dedicated to the events that led to the wrongful conviction and the second hour on the subsequent investigation that brought the real killer to justice. Hosted by criminal injustice campaigner and journalist Louise Shorter, the series also features exclusive interviews with the wrongly accused, dramatic reconstructions and expert-led opinions.

Other new commissions on the horizon include The Truth About My Murder with Welsh production company Yeti Television, and we have just commissioned a new series with Phoenix Television called Murder: Fight for the Truth, off the back of the success of our first production together, Murder: First on Scene.

We are open to working with new and emerging production companies and always looking for new and exciting ways to retell and present true crime.

TV REAL: In terms of acquisitions, what is driving the third-party buys as of late?
ROWDEN: Our acquisitions focus has been on securing long-running, top-performing U.S. true-crime series such as Medical Detectives (known as Forensic Files in the U.S.) and Cold Justice, while our daytime schedule is underpinned by the queen of the courtroom Judge Judy,whom we have in session from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m., which pulls in consistently strong audiences.

Medical Detectives/Forensic Files is the first-ever true-crime show to come out of the U.S., paving the way for subsequent documentary-style crime shows the world over. So popular is the series, which first premiered in 1996 and aired over 400 episodes in total, that due to demand in the true-crime genre, Medical Detectives/Forensic Files returned in 2020 after a nine-year hiatus. There is no better example of a format that was ahead of its time and a true-crime show with such longevity. CBS Reality is home to a total of 18 seasons to date.

TV REAL: What is on your wish list for acquisitions currently?
ROWDEN: Crime that can play pre-watershed is on our wish list. It would be nice to have more true-crime content in early prime time to offer more variety leading into our prime-time series. Our acquisitions team is always keeping an eye out for new and exciting true-crime content, especially if it can offer something different from our original content slate. As an example, access to prisoners or murderers in prison is very different in the U.K. to the U.S., so we have acquired U.S. series that include that amazing access where you get to hear from the killer in person.

TV REAL: How do co-productions fit into the larger content strategy?
ROWDEN: The majority of our original productions are co-productions. We work with a variety of other broadcasters and distributors to help fully fund productions. We are open to working this way as it allows us to bring more content to the channel and our audiences. Co-productions can give us access to bigger budget formats. We are currently a co-production partner on an exciting series with Back2Back Productions called Killers Caught on Camera, with a high percentage of archive footage included, which is something we could not afford to do on our own, coming to CBS Reality in 2023.

TV REAL: What is the focus for the channel as you look at the 18 to 24 months ahead?
ROWDEN: There is no sign of the appetite for true crime slowing, so continuing to provide the strongest, most intriguing offering to our audience is our focus. Central to this is delivering great shows through co-productions and commissions, which ultimately provide greater ownership over the content, so we can deliver across multiple platforms and appeal to more diverse audiences. True-crime fans are so engaged that they access great content across a multitude of platforms (print, podcasts, linear, on-demand), and we want to ensure we are offering our great content and reaching these audiences across all touchpoints. Co-productions and commissions give us more freedom to do that.