The cancellation of two giant franchises in the true-crime space—Cops on Paramount Network and Live PD on A&E—sent shockwaves through the factual business this summer. The moves came as people across the U.S.—and, for that matter, worldwide—were protesting acts of police brutality, sparked by the killing of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man, in May. Cops had been on the air since the late 1980s, moving from FOX to Spike TV to Paramount and becoming arguably the best-known crime TV franchise in the world. Live PD, meanwhile, had been one of A&E’s biggest hits since its 2016 launch, and among the top-rated shows on basic cable in the U.S.
Whether there’s room—or appetite—for either show to return is unclear, but it is apparent that in light of recent events, police reality shows are far too polarizing to serve as prime-time entertainment, at least in the U.S. And there is indeed a broader conversation within the factual business as a whole about the true-crime genre and how it can be continually refreshed to meet the expectations of viewers.
“The needs of the broadcasters and streamers are evolving with the understanding and sensitivity of the audiences they cater to,” observes Ludo Dufour, the senior VP of international co-productions and sales at Blue Ant International. “We’re going to see more complex stories. It’s no longer going to be just good and evil. It will have to be much more three-dimensional, deeper, more personal. Rather than just looking at the crime itself, we’re going to see shows that look at the societal impact of those crimes and the emotional burden they created. Or the cultural reverberations of those big iconic crimes. Police corruption is also something that will be addressed more and more in those shows, and the reform of the criminal justice system and prisons. Maybe also shows about combating wrongful convictions.”
Jon Kramer, the CEO of Rive Gauche Television, also sees a need to make sure “crime stories are diverse. We’ve actually been trying to diversify our crime offerings over the past few years,” referencing the addition of Homicide’s Elite to the company’s slate as an example.
The genre also continues to evolve since The Jinx and Making a Murderer, on HBO and Netflix, respectively, upped the game on audience expectations. Those titles “led to a massive thirst for high-quality true-crime docs that cover unique crimes,” says Liz Soriano, the VP of international programming at A+E Networks.
Stefanie Fischer, the managing director of sales at Off the Fence, also sees true crime moving from the fringes of late night into prime time and daytime, with “families sometimes sitting around and watching together. Therefore, we find that although cases need to be explosive and somewhat well-known, they also need to be very story-driven and more open for wider audiences at different times of the day. We’re also seeing crime emerging beyond just murder stories to fraud and other scandals, such as Fyre Festival and Jeffrey Epstein.”
Whatever form true crime takes, it remains an incredibly popular programming genre, filling weekly slots and entire networks. “Everyone loves a good mystery, and that’s what these true-crime shows are at heart,” says Hud Woodle, the executive VP of international sales and operations at GRB Studios. “Frankly, it also feels good, perhaps, these days more than ever, to see the bad guy (or gal) get caught!”
“There is a high level of demand because the genre is very diverse,” adds Ralf Rückauer, the VP of ZDFE.unscripted at ZDF Enterprises. “True crime can be made like ZDF does with Crime Watch XY or as documentaries or factual entertainment from different narrative angles: the perspective of the victims, the perpetrators, celebrities involved, famous cases, etc. There are so many possibilities for formats, production companies and broadcasters.”
Crime Watch XY is one of ZDF Enterprises’ main highlights this fall. The show has run on the German pubcaster for more than five decades. In it, unsolved cases are reenacted and surveillance footage and other evidence presented before the home audience is asked to call or e-mail in potential leads. Crime Watch XY was adapted in the U.K. and has recently been optioned in France, Rückauer says.
Crimes involving celebrities are also must-watch events, as evidenced by the tremendous success Lifetime had with its Surviving franchise, consisting of series on R. Kelly and Jeffrey Epstein. Surviving Jeffrey Epstein, a key international highlight for A+E Networks this fall, “features the survivors of his horrific crimes telling their own stories in their own voices,” says Soriano. “It also features interviews with those who were directly in Epstein’s orbit, giving our series the unique opportunity to uncover the complexity and scale of Epstein’s global sex-trafficking operation. We also cover the arrest of Ghislaine Maxwell, whose trial is pending for July 2021, which is an element the other Epstein projects on the market do not have.”
While Epstein is still very much in the news, there are several projects on the market at present that explore historical crimes. Off the Fence, for example, is showcasing Who Killed Malcolm X?, an Emmy-nominated Netflix original that “investigates the perplexing details surrounding the assassination of the civil rights leader, bringing startling new evidence to light,” says Loren Syer-Willoughby, head of acquisitions at the distribution outfit.
Blue Ant, meanwhile, is unveiling Fred & Rose West: House of Horrors, which was broadcast on ITV to mark the 25th anniversary of the gruesome discovery of bodies buried under the house of the now notorious serial-killing couple. “It provides lots of new details about the role of Rose within the couple,” says Dufour. “The host of the show, Trevor McDonald, also reported on the story 25 years ago, so he brings an interesting perspective.”
Famous criminals continue to fascinate, Dufour reports, but there is a need to tell these stories with new angles. Blue Ant-owned Saloon Media, for example, produced the Amazon original Ted Bundy: Falling for a Killer. “He’s a serial killer who everyone in the world knows about,” Dufour says. “But rather than glamorizing him and once again giving him a voice, there was a conscious decision from the producers not to let him speak, but to have his story told by the women who were his victims and are still alive.”
PUMP UP THE VOLUME
While true-crime event specials and series are very much in vogue, the staple of the business remains long-running shows that can become brands in and of themselves.
A+E Networks’ Soriano cites the company’s “mega-franchises” such as The First 48. “We have over 390 hours of the original show alone available in our catalog, and we’ve continued to grow The First 48 brand to keep it fresh over the years via spinoffs. This year we’re coming to market with 20 hours of a new spinoff called The First 48: Critical Minutes, which we’re confident this built-in audience will love. We’re also bringing back an old series titled I Survived with a fresh new spin—it’s now I Survived a Crime, and features victims telling the stories of their near-death experiences; how they overcame what would have been the last moment of their lives. Each story is accentuated with actual footage of the victims fighting back.”
Rive Gauche boasts such offerings as Homicide Hunter, Sins & Secrets, Evil Twins and Ice Cold Killers. “These are the types of series that we consider ‘bread-and-butter’ programming that keeps going on and on because the audience can’t get enough,” Kramer says. “We also have diversified and acquired crime series that are different from the traditional Discovery-type crime shows—which are terrific, but sometimes you have to vary it up. We partnered on a show with CBS Reality in the U.K. called Trace of Evil, and it’s getting very high ratings. It’s in its third season and there are 78 episodes to date. I see this series becoming a long-running brand.”
Volume is important for broadcasters who air true-crime shows, Kramer adds, “Volume allows a broadcaster the best chance to give the series some time to get the audience to catch on. Homicide Hunter was a good example of this.” However, in catering to the loyal base of true-crime viewers (mostly women 25 to 54, Kramer says), it’s important to showcase a varied mix. “If you are a programming crime, you have to mix it up and keep offering it. In speaking to the breadth of Rive Gauche’s slate, Kramer references Very Scary People, “an in-depth way of looking at famous serial killers,” and the more recent The Killer Truth, in which each episode looks at a murder case from the perspective of five people who are close to it.
GRB Studios, meanwhile, has ten seasons of ID’s On the Case to offer international buyers, as well as flagship shows such as Executed, For My Man and It Happened Here.
At Blue Ant, See No Evil is up to six seasons of looking at how CCTV camera footage has been used to solve crimes. “It’s a long-running series with closed-ended episodes,” says Dufour. But, echoing Kramer’s point about variety, Blue Ant is also offering up shorter-run productions such as Prison and Women on the Force. The former, which delivers exclusive insider access to a men’s prison, is “both a crime show and a high-impact documentary that has the potential to influence legislation,” says Dufour. Meanwhile, of Women on the Force, Dufour says there are “lessons to be learned from this show that could be implemented in real life.”
Off the Fence is showcasing two titles that recently came out of their Netflix holdbacks: the previously mentioned Who Killed Malcolm X? and Murder Mountain. According to Fischer, there are clear differences in the needs of channels and streamers in the true-crime space. “Generally speaking, linear broadcasters prefer cases that are closed, and the story can unravel with a beginning, middle and end rather than an investigation into a cold case. Streamers, however, are slightly more open to different styles, so there’s more creativity and flexibility for this genre. Celebrities can attract the attention of most broadcasters regardless of the genre, but especially if they’ve done something illegal!”
A+E Networks’ Soriano has a different take, observing, “On linear television, we’ve found that viewers want those premium, blue-chip true-crime stories. What we call sensational crime—scandalous, true cautionary-tale types of programming—has moved towards streaming. When you put all platforms together, you can see how all of the crime [shows] can coexist.” Whatever the platform, the most critical element is finding a way to stand out. Soriano mentions the need for a “unique lens” and references the approach employed at A+E Networks that has seen true-crime stories covered in both scripted and non-scripted mediums. For example, the company slated a Beyond the Headlines companion doc to the Lifetime TV movie Stolen by My Mother: The Kamiyah Mobley Story, produced under the Robin Roberts Presents label. In it, the famed journalist “was able to sit down with the real Mobley and others in her life. We have more Beyond the Headlines events, as well as plenty of projects with A-list talent and production companies, coming down the pipeline in the true-crime space.”
The diversity in the genre speaks to its durability, says Fischer at Off the Fence. “It’s quite a versatile genre, so it can depend on the nature of the style, being either story- or character-driven or late-night gruesome cases.”
“It always comes back to good storytelling,” concludes GRB’s Woodle. “The GRB lineup features over 900 hours of masterfully crafted crime stories, told in a way that keeps the audience glued to the screen, asking ‘Who done it?’ till the very end. Often, viewers will rewatch crime content even though they know how it ends, proving that nothing beats a great story.”