Making a Killing

A perennially popular genre, crime docs are in a state of evolution.

When Netflix released its groundbreaking documentary series Making a Murderer in December 2015, it impacted not only the life of its subject, Steven Avery, and the way people viewed the U.S. justice system, but also the true-crime television genre. More and more people wanted to learn about real criminal cases, and they found they could do so on their couches, TV remote control in hand, leading to increased demand from channels and other platforms for factual crime content. Apparently, the age-old adage “crime doesn’t pay” doesn’t hold any water in the television industry.

“It put crime programming front and center,” says Nicky Davies Williams, the CEO of DCD Rights, of the Netflix success. People were surprised, she says, at “how intrigued the world was and also how faithful to a long series the audiences were.”

And that sparked a change in how crime stories could be told. While returnable series with closed-ended episodes are still very much in demand since they represent the type of non-serialized programming that allows viewers to jump in and out, audiences now want and expect a more detailed investigation of individual cases. This yearning for more information has boosted the growth of multiple-episode storytelling within the crime genre.

“The direct impact [of Making a Murderer] is that there’s now room for six- to eight-part, big-budget arced series, as opposed to restricting crime to returnable series with self-contained episodes,” says Emmanuelle Namiech, the CEO of Passion Distribution. “To be fair, the interest in a long-term investigation leading to a premium exposé was first generated by HBO’s The Jinx,” she adds, noting that “true-crime is one of those universal topics that fascinate viewers. In the same way that scripted has seen a resurgence of crime shows, factual crime programming has been on the rise.”

“Volume has become more important than it has ever been before,” says Paul Heaney, the CEO of TCB Media Rights. Having a significant number of episodes available is important for both serialized crime programs and those of the closed-ended nature as broadcasters can fill their schedules with these types of shows across the weekend and draw high ratings at the same time.

Crime shows are particularly valuable for channels as they attract an “identifiable audience of regular, repeat viewers in the 25-to-54-year-old female demographic,” according to Jon Kramer, the CEO of Rive Gauche Television. “Channels want programs that have a lot of episodes.”

Rive Gauche Television has several such long-running series in its catalog, including the 30-episode Evil Twins, the 33-part Happily Never After, the 36-episode Ice Cold Killers and the 45-episode Sins & Secrets. Rive Gauche is betting on a new crime show titled Homicide’s Elite, which Kramer believes will garner a strong following as well.

Audiences find true-crime so gripping because the traditional whodunits and longer explorations tap into “universal themes of betrayal, lust, greed, revenge and overcoming adversity,” says Laura Fleury, A+E Networks’ senior VP, head of programming for international. “There is something uplifting—especially for women, who are more often at the wrong end of a crime story—to hear stories about how people overcame those situations, how justice was finally [served]. There’s certainly a thrill to crime content too. There’s a thrill of feeling suspense and of wanting to try to figure out human behavior.”

For the armchair detectives, Fleury believes watching crime programs is “cathartic, but not necessarily through watching someone else suffer. A lot of the crime stories we’re watching now have transcended the core crime viewer. They are stories that everyone’s interested in, and they have all of the great attributes of a traditional crime story—the race against time, incredibly high stakes, good guys and bad guys, and some sort of a resolution, or at least a pursuit of justice or call to action.”

Munia Kanna-Konsek, the head of sales at Beyond Distribution, finds that “the important thing is that the audience needs a resolution. If the stories are left open-ended, they will not do so well. As viewers, we need closure, safe in the knowledge that the person who committed the crime has been brought to justice.”

True-crime series are a “real-life whodunit,” echoes DCD’s Davies Williams. “The line that one has to tread is one that delivers a degree of distance, rather than having people being frightened of a knock on the door. The tone and nature of it must strike the right balance.”

Along with viewers’ desire to see a resolution from their couch cushions comes an expectation for takeaways. This is the case particularly for female viewers, according to Davies Williams. “These viewers will ask themselves, ‘What have I learned from this? How can I avoid this?’”

And if the program-maker can produce a series that has immediate ramifications when dealing with a case that has been broadly covered in the news, like Making a Murderer or Investigation Discovery’s Killing Richard Glossip from filmmaker Joe Berlinger, that can be a strong hook. Yet, she cautions, “It can be a difficult one to deliver.”

“Production-wise, a program like Making a Murderer is very difficult to duplicate,” Rive Gauche’s Kramer concurs. “We shouldn’t fool ourselves that there are going to be 20 of these in the near future.”

And because crime content has a shelf life, TCB’s Heaney warns against stockpiling this type of programming. “There are always new filming techniques being developed, or new ways to do reconstruction,” he explains. Though there are, of course, many returning series, “you’ve got to be careful of expecting that your crime shows will keep selling. There is a lot of demand, but there is also a large supply, so recent history is telling us not to get too smug about having a lot of true-crime series in our catalogs.”

The key, according to Rive Gauche’s Kramer, is that there must be “a crime and a solution. That’s the first thing. But then you have to take chances because you can’t keep doing the same thing all the time.” The company is enthusiastic about Something’s Killing Me, an investigative show that sets itself apart in that the crimes featured are medically based.

“Top-quality dramatic reenactments, exceptional production values as well as gripping storylines based on real-life crimes make for a deadly combination,” says Beyond’s Kanna-Konsek. “Add to that serious narration emphasizing and bringing to the fore the important points that help illustrate the victims’ tragic ends and what led the perpetrators to this point in their lives, then you are mesmerized.” She points to several shows in Beyond’s catalog that use this storytelling technique, including Deadly Women, Fatal Vows, A Stranger in My Home and The Will: Family Secrets Revealed. She has also found an increased interest in crime shows that can play in daytime slots, including blue-light series such as Highway Patrol, Motorway Patrol, Beach Cops and Highway Cops.

“There’s always another angle, another way in,” TCB’s Heaney says of how producers can expose the underbelly of society. He points to a new addition to TCB’s catalog, A Killer’s Mistake, which is currently in production. It examines the “key moment when a killer managed to give him or herself away. So, that’s another way in to tell the story of a crime.” Confessions of a Serial Killer also takes a unique approach. “It uses the real audio of a murderer but inserts an actor to play the role” in the re-creation, Heaney says.

Heaney also distinguishes between series made in the U.S. and those made in the U.K. “There’s a U.S. style that is slightly glossier that works all around the world, as seen in series such as Murder Made Me Famous and Copycat Killers, and there’s a grittier U.K. style that also works well.”

“The overall bar of quality in storytelling and quality of execution is going up,” says Fleury of A+E Networks. “Production values have increased.”

“The crime genre is a very broad one with many subgenres,” she adds. “The more traditional whodunit crime documentary continues to evolve. New shows are constantly being produced, with exciting, fresh ways of telling these stories, whether they are one-hour documentaries or eight-hour series.”

Fleury continues, “Everyone was trying to crack, ‘What’s the live show that will drive viewership?’” Live PD, which offers a real-time look at law enforcement at work, was the answer.

“Capturing law enforcement work as it’s happening, in the moment, is what makes Live PD so brilliant,” Fleury explains. “There are few other things that have the stakes that live law enforcement has and the show has resonated so directly with audiences. Viewers participate in discussions on social media. For the audience, Live PD is an experience that is more about what might happen next rather than a traditional show that looks at how a crime is going to be solved.”

Another way to keep the genre fresh, DCD’s Davies Williams says, is by evolving with the crimes of the time and featuring topical felonies. DCD Rights is among several distributors offering shows on the perils of online dating. Swipe Right for Murder is a recent addition that has a younger skew due to the nature of the crimes covered.

Winding up on the wrong end of the law can lead to public notoriety. TCB Media Rights’ Murder Made Me Famous examines incidences in which a crime brought infamy to the accused. “Murder Made Me Famous rates very well on REELZ in the U.S. and is an example of a series that will have a long shelf life,” Heaney says.

Similarly, programs about crimes directly involving celebrities who already had a claim to fame before they were tainted by misdeeds offer another storytelling angle.

A dose of drama also provides a good hook to engage viewers. DCD Rights bridges the gap between crime drama and true-crime series with Real Detective. “It’s fascinating because the audience sees real detectives take them through a case that has haunted them,” Davies Williams says. “It is beautifully cast and the detectives are engaging. The show opens with the detective telling the story of the crime and then cuts to full dramatization. The show itself is 90-percent dramatized with voiceover and interjections from the detective. It fills an interesting gap and crosses drama with factual.”

“Because these stories are so dramatic by definition, they translate well,” explains A+E’s Fleury. “They can be dubbed and subtitled, and the visualization, while not needing to be super graphic, is universal. These are universal and incredibly relatable stories, so they travel well.”

Most often, finished tapes cross borders with ease. “U.S. and U.K. shows tend to travel the most in their original form,” says Passion’s Namiech. “There is no need to adapt them, save for the usual dubbing or subtitling.”

The countries with the largest appetite for true-crime content are the U.S., U.K., Australia, Canada, Italy, France and Germany. DCD’s Davies Williams finds that Eastern Europe is another strong buyer of this type of programming.

Indeed, A+E’s Crime & Investigation network continues to pop up in territories across the globe, and the company has even launched a new OTT brand in the U.K., Kriminal, focused on crime programming.

Digital platforms “are certainly an additional revenue stream, but the linear channels are still the major home for this genre,” says Beyond’s Kanna-Konsek.

Yet, most distributors are finding that the space for true-crime on digital platforms is “steadily rising,” as TCB’s Heaney says. GRB has a deal for true-crime programming with Netflix, and DCD’s Davies Williams agrees that with cable and digital platforms alike on the hunt for true crime, “It offers quite a lot of choice of where to sell at the moment.”