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.

More TV

  • Charles Levin Obit

    Missing 'Seinfeld' Actor Charles Levin's Body Believed to be Found

    Oregon authorities believe they have found the body of the missing “Seinfeld” actor Charles Levin. He was 70 years old. According to Associated Press, Levin’s son reported the actor missing from Grants Pass on July 8. On July 12, search and rescue teams determined a search area in a remote area northeast of Selma with [...]

  • Oliver Jackson-Cohen Invisible Man

    ‘Haunting of Hill House’ Star Oliver Jackson-Cohen Returning for ‘Haunting of Bly Manor’

    Oliver Jackson-Cohen, who was recently cast as the titular character in the upcoming Blumhouse-Universal Pictures feature “The Invisible Man,” is set to haunt viewers once more on Netflix. Jackson-Cohen, who starred in “The Haunting of Hill House,” will return to star in the second installment of the Netflix anthology series, titled “The Haunting of Bly Manor.” [...]

  • Jack Reacher: Never Go Back

    Amazon to Develop 'Jack Reacher' Series

    Watch out Tom Cruise, there’s going to be another Jack Reacher in town. In a competitive situation, Amazon has won the rights to develop a series based on the protagonist from Lee Child’s novels. The series hails from “Scorpion” creator Nick Santora, who will write, showrun and executive produce. Child’s “Jack Reacher” series has sold over [...]

  • Fox News Media Taps Jason Klarman

    Fox News Media Taps Jason Klarman as Executive VP, Marketing

    Jason Klarman, a veteran TV executive who has served stints at NBCUniversal and Fullscreen Media, has been named executive vice president of Fox Corporation’s Fox News Media, and will supervise brand strategy for Fox News Channel, Fox Business Network and other assets that are part of the division. Klarman will report to Suzanne Scott, CEO [...]

  • Sean Diddy Combs

    MTV, Sean 'Diddy' Combs Reunite for 'Making the Band' Return

    MTV and Sean “Diddy” Combs are reuniting to reboot the reality competition series “Making the Band.” The show is slated to premiere in 2020. Its return was prompted by a tweet Diddy recently posted suggesting it was time for a comeback. Originally featuring the creation of early 2000s boy band O-Town (the show was conceived [...]

  • HBO Communications Chief Quentin Schaffer to

    HBO Communications Chief Quentin Schaffer to Exit After 39 Years

    Longtime HBO communications head Quentin Schaffer is stepping down from his post next month after 39 years as a key architect of HBO’s premium TV brand. Schaffer will exit as HBO’s executive VP of corporate communications next month, after steering HBO through one last Television Critics Association press tour in Beverly Hills. He is the [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content