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True Crime Tales Are on the Rise Across Broadcast and Cable

True crime has always been a part of TV in some form– newscasts, news magazines, TV movies, docu-series, as well as the inspiration for fictional scripted shows. But with the success of the podcast “Serial,” HBO’s “The Jinx,” Netflix’s “Making a Murderer” and FX’s “The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story,” true crime content proliferates at a greater rate now than in the recent past.

“True crime used to be a staple in the TV movie business, which doesn’t really exist anymore,” says FX original programming president Eric Schrier. “We didn’t get into it for any specific reason. It was really about the material and the auspices.”

“American Crime Story” executive producer Brad Simpson says true crime docu-drama on cable outlets for the past 10 years, coupled with the rise of the anthology limited series, gave rise to the current spree. And the current political and cultural state of the country may play into the resurgence as well.

“People feel like something is broken in America and watching true crime speaks to that,” says Simpson, who is in production on the next “Crime Story” installment, about the murder of fashion icon Gianni Versace. “Really good true crime isn’t just about the crime itself; it’s the crime that’s indicative of something in society.”

Rich Ross, group president for Discovery Channel, Animal Planet, Science Channel and Velocity, notes true crime has made up a quarter of the Discovery schedule at various points over the years, but scripted true crime offers fans of the genre new ways to see historic stories. “When I came in [in 2015] I certainly looked at categories or genres that heretofore had worked, and crime was one of them,” he says, pointing to Discovery’s success with recent docu-series “The Killing Fields,” which will spawn a spinoff.

“It is always about figuring it out [and] ‘Manhunt’ is the perfect example,” Ross says of Discovery’s upcoming scripted turn at true crime. “[‘Manhunt: Unabomber’] is told from the point of view of the Sam Worthington [FBI profiler] character of Fitzgerald. He’s the key to figuring it out.”

Greg Yaitanes, who directed all eight hours of “Manhunt,” echoes Ross’ point about shedding new light on stories the longer an audience can spend with them. “My first professional directing gig was doing reenactments on ‘America’s Most Wanted’ the day of the Oklahoma City bombing,” says Yaitanes. “I remember working and following the case and the thing that caught me by surprise when I read the ‘Manhunt’ pilot was how everything I knew was just a small fraction of the story.”

Edie Falco stars as Leslie Abramson on “The Menendez Murders.”
Courtesy of Justin Lubin/NBC

Burgeoning Paramount Network, which replaces Viacom’s Spike TV in 2018, will get its start using a true crime series: The six-part “Waco” is about the 51-day standoff that began with an ATF raid in Texas in 1993. “Waco” stars Michael Shannon, Taylor Kitsch, John Leguizamo and Melissa Benoist.

“What’s really en vogue now are these limited event series where you can get big-name feature actors who aren’t signing up for seven seasons,” says Keith Cox, Paramount Network president of development and production. “When you do shows like this one, we all know the outcome, but when you put it in these unbelievably skilled actors’ hands, you’re almost humanizing it and getting in the heads of the characters in a way that maybe in a documentary you wouldn’t.”

Given the success of ripped-from-the-headlines drama “Law & Order” across the networks of NBCUniversal, it’s no surprise to see true crime on USA Network, too.

“We have a pretty substantial audience circulating through our network that loves ‘Law & Order,’” says Bill McGoldrick, executive vice president of scripted content for NBCUniversal Cable Entertainment. “That may not be true crime, but it’s inspired by true crime. We know how to access that base.”

USA is producing a new anthology series, “Unsolved,” with its first season devoted to “The Murders of Tupac and The Notorious B.I.G.” The series follows an investigation by LAPD detective Greg Kading (Josh Duhamel), and the real-life Kading serves as an executive producer on the series after writing the book “Murder Rap: The Untold Story of the Biggie Smalls & Tupac Shakur Murder Investigations.”

“Some of these stories are so resonant this many years later that people still have an interest in [them],” McGoldrick says. “There are still questions, dots that haven’t been connected, and curiosity around some of the figures involved, and I think that makes these evergreen.”

Anthony Hemingway, fresh off “The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story,” directed the “Unsolved” pilot. “The overarching theme is perception,” Hemingway says of ‘Unsolved,’ “how perception is challenged by many things: your own judgment, your own moral compass. ‘O.J.’ demanded its own tone and feel and one of the greatest things about ‘Unsolved’ is the music is something that helps support the narrative and also is a character in itself.”

Even the venerable “Law & Order” brand is getting into the act this fall with the first installment of “Law & Order: True Crime” devoted to “The Menendez Murders,” a case recently explored by a Lifetime TV movie, too.

“Given that ‘Law & Order’ is an inspired-by-the-headlines kind of show that capitalizes on true crime, it was a great extension of the brand to jump into this,” says NBC Entertainment president Jennifer Salke.

Edie Falco will star in fall’s “The Menendez Murders” as attorney Leslie Abramson, who defends Lyle and Erik Menendez in the 1989 murders of their parents. “These are real stories and real people who have lived through these extraordinary circumstances,” Salke says of true crime tales. “There’s something about the fact they’re based on something real that really gets under your skin in a way scripted drama can’t. That’s not to say the scripted variety isn’t compelling, but there’s an extra fascination with things that really transpired.”

On the unscripted side, Investigation Discovery’s president Henry Schleiff says true crime stories have broad, universal appeal, which has helped ID see a ratings growth of 17% in the 18-49 demo and 20% in women 18-49 in the second quarter of this year, compared to the same period in 2016. “We are clearly benefiting from the fact that we offer consistency,” Schleiff says. “The secret to our success is not the crime, it’s the investigation, the puzzle-solving.”

Many ID shows tell the beginning, middle and end of a true crime story in one hour, but the network is also experimenting with the longer-form, multi-episode storytelling popularized by Netflix’s “Making a Murderer.” Schleiff’s plan is to keep a balance of both programming for the foreseeable future.

Similarly, Oxygen, which just last month rebranded itself as a full-time crime programming channel, is seeing success from a mix of long-time staples (including “Snapped,” which premiered in 2004) and new multi-part investigation programs (such as the upcoming “The Disappearance of Natalee Holloway”). Rod Aissa, executive vice president of original programming for Oxygen, notes millennial interest in the genre helped boost ratings for Oxygen’s true crime-themed weekends, which led to the network’s new focus.

“I’m no sociologist, but I do think in times of unrest or uncertainty, the conversation around justice and what it means is often very comforting and also a very important conversation to have,” Aissa says.

This recent increase in true crime programming could not have come without early adopters who generated buzz around such projects as “The Jinx” and “Making a Murderer,” though. Ryan White, who began work on the Emmy-nominated murder mystery “The Keepers” in 2014 says distributors saw the value in his project because of the success of the ones that came before. The individual cases explored may be different, but one key theme threads through all.

“They’re all stories of injustice, stories of people and institutions not being held accountable for crimes.” White says. “Americans — or global audiences, especially with Netflix — get really fired up about these stories where they feel like regular people are harmed and people in power got away with it.”

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