TV Real Festival Highlights True-Crime Trends


GRB Media Ranch’s Sophie Ferron, TVF International’s Poppy McAlister and Woodcut Media’s Kate Beal, who also chairs the Association of True Crime Producers, told TV Real Festival delegates about the trends shaping the business of crime docs.

The session, available here, featured Ferron, co-principal and president of GRB Media Ranch; McAlister, head of TVF International; and Beal, founder and CEO of Woodcut Media.

The session, moderated by TV Real’s Jamie Stalcup, was filmed prior to the news of true-crime producer John Balson’s tragic passing.

On what makes for a compelling true-crime doc, McAlister noted: “We love that phrase ‘stranger than fiction’—something that takes you on a real journey. There are twists and turns. You can’t predict what the outcome is going to be. High-profile cases, things with contemporary relevance, so, seeing new evidence or an anniversary or maybe someone’s been released from prison or there’s a retrial; things that make it feel really timely.”

“It’s about an extraordinary story,” Beal said. “It’s got that kind of dramatic scripted narrative in the unscripted world. You have the tension, the build, the characters, the ‘oh my goodness’ moments and the twists and turns and the rabbit holes. All of that comes in many true-crime stories, which is why we tell so many true-crime stories because it’s the closest thing to scripted in the unscripted world in some ways.”

When it’s picking up true-crime titles, GRB Media Ranch looks for series with multiple episodes, Ferron said. “It’s really important to have an umbrella series with many crimes told. Reenactments are popular and a very easy way to tell the story.”

McAlister agreed, adding, “Reenactments can travel quite well internationally, especially if there’s no dialogue in the reenactments. It really helps to relive the story that you’re telling. On top of that, I’d add access to perhaps the victims or the victims’ families and really strong contributors who can speak to the case firsthand so that you get that close feeling toward the story.”

Beal noted that true-crime has “matured into subgenres, so there isn’t just one style of true-crime documentary. There’s the one-story-per-episode format framework, or there are the single, feature=doc deep dives into one case that perhaps have more of an authored point of view. There are three- or four-parters that really deep dive into one case. They all have a different quality, and the viewer has a different expectation. The viewer is quite sophisticated in this area. They know what they like, but they equally understand that there are different types of true-crime programming now. If you want to sit there and binge 20 episodes of something, you can, but equally, if you want to have something more cerebral and think about something, then maybe a feature documentary in the true-crime space will satisfy that need.”

McAlister weighed in on the importance of taking a “sensitive approach to the storytelling” in true-crime docs. “Viewers like to binge on true crime, but they don’t want to feel like they’re indulging in the pain of a family or exploiting the victims in any way. Often, the entertainment comes in the case alone. The cases are often so salacious and striking and shocking that you don’t need to go into the detail of the gory realities of what happened. You can actually just look at other ways to tell the story.”

Beal was instrumental in the creation of the Association of True Crime Producers, which is leading the charge in developing standards to protect victims in the retelling of crime stories. “The whole point of it is to put the victim first,” she said. “You want to know that the memory, the family, the legacy of that victim is treated in the most respectful way. In the U.K., true crime is growing out of the documentary heritage, so we apply the same standards of care and duty to it as we would the serious side of documentary. As Poppy said, the stories themselves are gripping, fascinating and dramatic and have that tension. That, for the viewer, is where the enjoyment lies. And also, there’s that armchair detective [aspect]. True crime is like specialist factual for women. In the way that men—and this is very stereotypical, so apologies to everyone—say, ‘Let’s look at this history program or this science program, and, oh, that mega engine is so cool and it can travel at this many knots per hour,’ whatever the enjoyment that men get out of specialist factual, women, who are the predominant true-crime viewer, will sit there and think about the psychology of it, the context, the cultural history or the sociology. People can feel that they’re learning, as well as listening to a story and empathizing with the victim and the family.”

McAlister frequently hears from commissioning clients that resolution at the end of a true-crime doc is key. “Stories where it continues to go on are really hard to sell, or if it’s too much of an active case as well, when we don’t know what’s going to happen.”

Stalcup then asked the panelists about those open-ended true-crime docs, where the case remains unsolved.

“In the U.K. we wouldn’t ever do something that was actually happening in court at the time,” Beal said. “In the States, you wouldn’t really either. You can’t be seen to influence what’s happening. You have to let justice play out. You can be contacting the key players and working with them in a sensitive way during that time, but you wouldn’t ever make a program while something was in court. However, if you have a cold case or an ongoing investigation you can, but it is harder to sell. It is a risk. The only cold cases that do sell in a big way are big ones, so like Jill Dando on Netflix or the Madeleine McCann [case]. And it’s a lot more expensive. One of the attractive parts of true crime is that you get the scripted, dramatic quality for unscripted prices. This starts to become a little bit more expensive because it’s a lot more of a legal challenge, perhaps the filming is longer. We can’t all do Making a Murderer.”

McAlister added, “If there isn’t a resolution, then there needs to be another really strong theme. Often there are social justice themes, there might be impact campaigns, there might be current-affairs hooks. Projects that are surrounding things like police violence or Black deaths in custody or domestic violence or exploitation, they’re constantly in the news, so it might not be that this particular case is solved, but there is a lot else around it that is relevant, that makes viewers still find it interesting and compelling, even if there isn’t a particular resolution to that case.”

The conversation then moved to ethical considerations around true-crime docs and the duty of care protocols required.

“That’s the whole reason we set up the Association of True Crime Producers,” Beal said. “Because of the explosion, with huge amounts of hours being produced, we were starting to talk among ourselves about how we were approaching victims. If it’s a famous crime, the amount of approaches they have every year—the family members or people associated with it—is actually quite large. As we as an industry turn more and more toward true crime, we were starting to worry about the mental health of the contributors, but equally the mental health of the production teams. More and more people are working on these programs. They are enormously satisfying to produce, but they can also be very difficult. These are horrible stories. We have to, as an industry, put guidance and protocols in place. The Association of True Crime Producers has written 13 guidelines. Broadcasters have put their logos on our website to say that they are working with us. We’re holding educational webinars. We’ve now got member companies from all over the world. It very much hit the zeitgeist of producers and networks both saying, We need to protect the victims and the production teams because it’s growing so quickly.”

The session then explored the distribution landscape for true-crime and where the demand for acquisitions is coming from. Ferron quipped, “The question would be, who doesn’t want true crime? Anything we have on true crime, I would sell it on any platform. We are actually looking at FAST channels, and if we had enough true crime, we would do a true-crime channel. There is no end to this genre. Everybody wants it. But again, not everybody wants the same level. Some are more in-depth, some are more cookie-cutter and some are more celebrity-driven.”

McAlister agreed, noting, “There are so many subgenres of crime. It’s not just murders. There are cults, there’s prisons, there’s the crime-adjacent investigative journalism series that do really well. To a point about the FAST channels, all broadcasters, 99 percent of them, are moving toward a digital-first strategy. The online platforms are where people really go to binge crime. So, as long as there are online spaces to watch crime, then there will be a demand for them. And that’s happening globally, not just in one territory.”

Ferron added, “It’s more affordable than scripted series and it feels like a scripted show.”

Plus, McAlister said, “It’s splashy. There’s so much choice nowadays on the streamers. You’re going to look for something that catches your eye immediately. You want that amazing title that you think, That is bizarre or that is scary, and I really want to find out more about that. That’s harder with other unscripted genres. Whereas in true crime, it is buzzy, bingeable and it’s clickable immediately.”

On what’s ahead for true-crime, Ferron is expecting to see more scripted versions of true stories that resonate with audiences.

McAlister added, “We already know that true-crime podcasts are some of the highest-rated podcasts out there, so it’s going to expand into more than documentary. Although the genre is not going anywhere, I do think that buyers are going to become increasingly picky about the kind of true crime that they license. There’s so much commissioning going on in the true-crime space that I think in terms of acquisitions, it’s going to be harder to cut through, to sell a [program] about a true crime that happened in Sweden to a buyer in Australia when the Australian channels are already commissioning their own true crime. It is a crowded space, and unless it’s a very high-profile, explosive series, it is going to be harder to cut through.”

Beal noted, “I’ve been wondering for a number of years when the true-crime bubble will burst. I don’t think it’s going to get bigger than it is now. We are at a peak, but we’re going to maintain the peak.”