Networks Take a Thrill From License to Kill

Law and Order Menedez brothers
Courtesy of Justin Lubin/NBC

A teenage girl doused with gasoline and set on fire. A schizophrenic stalker. A month of programming devoted to crimes from the 1980s — nostalgia for the Night Stalker, Jeffrey Dahmer and the Green River Killer.

Welcome to the program menu for the new Oxygen. The channel that once survived on a steady diet of Tori Spelling’s travails is now devoting itself to tales of poor souls who have been deprived of oxygen. “It Takes a Killer,” “Snapped,” “Ice Cold Murder” (hosted by Ice-T), “Criminal Confessions” “Killer Couples” and “The Disappearance Of …” are among the new series rolling out on the channel.

Oxygen’s makeover into an all true-crime, all the time outlet is not a shock given the popularity of the genre. But the focus on grisly and sensational murders, past and present, in the first wave of shows unveiled for the rebranding is cringeworthy nonetheless. Oxygen previously billed itself as a haven for multicultural millennial women, with shows that reflected “how real women with real stories see the world — vibrant, optimistic and bold.” The Oxygen makeover that is expected to be complete this summer is all about motive, means and opportunity.

The Oxygen shift is but one example of TV’s over-indulgence on murder stories to draw audiences. There’s no greater stakes than the loss of life. Oxygen is taking a cue from the unqualified success that Investigation Discovery has had by mining the true-crime beat, with an emphasis on murders, particularly crimes of passion (among the franchises: “Fatal Vows,” “Love Kills,” “Murder Comes to Town,” “Murder Chose Me,” “Murder Calls,” “Wives With Knives.”)

Discovery, TLC, Nat Geo TV, Lifetime, TNT and SundanceTV are among the major networks that have invested in true crime tales, just to name a few. CBS revisited the JonBenet Ramsey case last fall; NBC is putting the “Law & Order” stamp on a narrative take on the infamous murders by the Menendez brothers this fall.

Scanning the TV listings these days you’d never know that the national murder rate has been cut in half since its peak in the modern era in 1980 with 10.2 murders per 100,000 people, according to FBI statistics analyzed by the Death Penalty Information Center. Even in Louisiana, the state that has long had the highest rate of homicide, the body count has dropped from 17.5 murders per 100,000 people in 1996 to 10.3 in 2015.

Writers in scripted TV have the license to kill at will, layering on the lurid details that spring from the writers’ collective imagination. But the true-crime genre has an ostensible obligation to the “true” part of the description. In too many instances, the facts of a crime that undoubtedly shattered more lives than just one are exploited for cheap thrills and cheap-to-produce clip shows. Imagine how the families of those who died at the hands of Dahmer or Richard Ramirez, aka the Night Stalker, feel in seeing their horror revisited as part of a “Crimes of the ’80s” themed month.

For sure, great work has been done under the aegis of a true-crime story that just has to be seen to be believed. Netflix set a new standard in 2015 with the multi-part “Making a Murderer,” which put the death of Teresa Halbach in the context of a discussion of class, privilege and a dysfunctional criminal justice system. Investigation Discovery won a Peabody Award this year for a similar expose of how institutional bias led to a deeply flawed prosecution for a gang rape in “Southwest of Salem: The Story of the San Antonio Four.”

But those kinds of productions take time, money and dedication from producers driven to deliver a nuanced and objective look at an incident that warrants further study. More often than not, real-life stories of murder are reduced to sensationalized fodder for an endless number of franchise series with clever titles.

To me, that’s almost a crime.

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