Crime & Celebrities Rule at REELZ

Steve Cheskin, the senior VP of programming at REELZ, tells TV Real about the signature shows on the channel and why crime- and celebrity-focused programs draw eyeballs.

True-crime titles are having their moment on both linear and nonlinear TV these days, and celebrities have always been a hook for viewers. Indie television network REELZ schedules programming that appeals to television audiences’ fascination with both crime and famous faces. According to Steve Cheskin, who serves as the senior VP of programming at REELZ, the content that airs on the channel is “an intersection of celebrity and crime.”

***Image***“On our network, the programs that we have involving crime must be told through our lens of real stories about real celebrities and/or Hollywood and movies,” Cheskin says. “True crime lends itself to great storytelling, and I learned long ago that you can tell sensational stories in a credible way,” which is what REELZ aims to do with the programming it airs.

REELZ, which is currently available throughout the U.S. on cable and satellite, as well as in Puerto Rico, “concentrates on contemporary documentary storytelling,” he explains. This includes re-creation as well as more traditional documentary storytelling with interviews, archival footage and more. “The narrative is essential and all the original programming and acquisitions we do are connected to celebrities and/or Hollywood and movies.”

“We are acquiring and producing original programming from many places around the world,” Cheskin explains. “The majority of the hours come from the U.S., U.K. and Canada. We work with some very large production companies, but also very small ones.” He finds that REELZ’s success is rooted in the practice of “treating all of the companies we work with as partners. We don’t demand that we have to own everything like many other networks do. This allows our production partners to share in the success of the shows internationally.”

The channel has seen success with Autopsy: The Last Hours Of…. “It began as an acquisition of episodes that had run on Channel 5 in the U.K. and then we began producing them [as] originals for our air,” Cheskin says. The show, produced by ITV Studios’ Potato, examines the final hours in the lives of global icons such as Bruce Lee, Janis Joplin and Steve McQueen.

Gangsters: America’s Most Evil from Asylum Entertainment is another popular show that started as an acquisition. “It did really well and is now in our second season of originals,” Cheskin reports. “By doing original episodes we are able to help bring out the Hollywood/movie story parallel to true life, and these episodes have proven even more popular on the network.”

National Enquirer Investigates had a successful first season and has also been renewed for another run. The show, produced by Jupiter Entertainment in conjunction with The Weinstein Company, looks at sensational crimes and celebrity scandals, including well-known stars such as Natalie Wood, Elvis Presley, Whitney Houston and Bobbi Kristina Brown. Another show that has scored a season three renewal and even a spin-off is the AMS Pictures-produced Murder Made Me Famous. “The spin-off, Scandal Made Me Famous, is currently airing and is also a hit,” Cheskin says.

The shows REELZ airs focus not only on the link between crime and celebrities but also on the connection between criminal activity and movies. Real Story Of…, for example, puts a spotlight on films that were based on true stories and shows what actually happened. Similarly, CopyCat Killers examines murderers who were motivated to commit a crime by something they saw in the movies. “We are currently working on a second season order of 20 hours,” Cheskin notes.

“We’ve also had a number of hugely successful specials,” he adds. These include JFK: The Smoking GunPrincess Diana’s Death: Mystery Solved and The Amityville Horror Murders. The series of two-hour specials Behind Closed Doors, which takes a look at the lives of celebrities such as Princess Diana, Jackie Kennedy and Robin Williams, has also done well for the channel.

Cheskin says that the shock-value and high emotions triggered by these stories makes them relatable. “I’m especially moved by the response we’ve gotten from many of the families who lost a close relative in a tragic crime,” he says of the impact of the programming on REELZ. The families have “appreciated the opportunity to tell the story of their loved one and let our viewers go beyond the sensational headlines that probably existed at the time and learn more about the person whose life was cut short.”

REELZ’s schedule begins with celebrity programming in the morning before shifting to an afternoon block of true-crime programming. “In prime time and late night we are primarily focused on celebrity stories, with some of those intersecting with true crime, like in the case of O.J. Simpson, where the crime essentially created a celebrity,” says Cheskin. Movies are also part of the lineup, and REELZ is currently gearing up for the premiere of the four-hour miniseries event The Kennedys: After Camelot in April. The premiere is set for Sunday, April 2, at 9 p.m., with the two-hour conclusion slated for Sunday, April 9, at 9 p.m.

“Going forward we want to continue with great storytelling about celebrities,” says Cheskin. “We will be looking to expand our list of celebrities that we have shows about, including [placing] more emphasis on contemporary stars.” He notes that REELZ is also beginning to bolster its roster of well-known TV personalities and journalists to host its shows. “That will be a very important element of our next stage,” he says.

“Through a natural progression of seeing the kinds of shows that were working for us we found a genre that was essentially abandoned by other networks and certainly no one was doing it on a regular basis,” Cheskin notes. “In an environment where most networks are losing audience, we are gaining.”