×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Networks Take a Thrill From License to Kill

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.

Popular on Variety

More TV

  • first wives club BET

    TV Review: 'The First Wives Club' on BET Plus

    Launching a series based on a beloved property is harder than it seems. On the one hand, you get the immediate boost of name recognition to lure in preexisting fans. On the other, straying too far from the plot and/or spirit of the original risks sparking their righteous wrath. It’s a tricky balance to strike, [...]

  • Thomas Golubic8th Annual Guild of Music

    Guild of Music Supervisors President: 'The Economics of the Job Don't Work Anymore'

    The Guild of Music Supervisors (GMS) hosted its 5th annual “State of Music in Media” conference on Saturday, Sept. 15, at the Los Angeles Film School. Featuring a wide array of panel discussions on all manner of issues related to music in film, television and advertising, the confab drew top composers, music supervisors, licensing and [...]

  • Christopher Eccleston Anorexia

    Christopher Eccleston Reveals He Was 'Very Ill' With Anorexia While Filming 'Doctor Who'

    “Doctor Who” actor Christopher Eccleston has opened up about his anorexia, body dysmorphia and suicidal thoughts. Eccleston, who played the ninth incarnation of the Doctor, made the revelations in his forthcoming autobiography “I Love the Bones of You: My Father and the Making of Me.” “Many times I’ve wanted to reveal that I’m a lifelong [...]

  • Justin Theroux Mute

    'Mosquito Coast' Series Starring Justin Theroux Set at Apple

    Apple has ordered an adaptation of “The Mosquito Coast” to series, Variety has learned. Justin Theroux will star in the series, which is based on the novel by his uncle Paul Theroux. The story follows an idealist who uproots his family and moves them to Latin America. Neil Cross is adapting the book for television [...]

  • 'Big Mouth' presentation, Paleyfest, Panel

    TV News Roundup: Jenny Slate's Netflix Comedy Special Sets October Premiere

    In today’s TV news roundup, Jenny Slate’s first Netflix comedy special “Stage Fright” premieres Oct. 22, and Netflix also releases the first trailer for its upcoming comedy “Living with Yourself,” out Oct. 18.  DATES Jenny Slate‘s first full-length comedy special “Stage Fright” will launch on Netflix Oct. 22. In it, the comedian and actress shares [...]

  • Shane Gillis SNL

    Shane Gillis Out From 'Saturday Night Live'

    “Saturday Night Live” is officially cutting ties with Shane Gillis. “After talking with Shane Gillis, we have decided that he will not be joining ‘SNL,'” an “SNL” spokesperson on behalf of Lorne Michaels said in a statement. “We want SNL to have a variety of voices and points of view within the show, and we [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content