Crime has always been part of television’s DNA, but in global marketplaces, true crime is enjoying unprecedented levels of success across the streamers and on more traditional outlets.
Earlier this year, Shonda Rhimes’ “Inventing Anna,” starring Julia Garner as the fake heiress Anna Sorokin (aka Anna Delvey), became one of Netflix’s biggest shows ever.
“Inventing Anna” is the tip of TV’s latest crime wave as producers and commissioners hope to find the horrifying stories that might one day take their place alongside such TV true crime successes as “ The Jinx,” “ The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story,” “Don’t Fuck With Cats” or “Making a Murderer,” the Netflix series that took true crime to the streamers.
“The fascination with true crime has never been stronger,” says Dan Korn, VP of programming at A+E Networks U.K ., whose channels include Crime + Investigation. “We spend a lot of time trying to work out why that is. Did people’s sense of isolation in lockdown have something to do with it?
“People are fascinated by stories of almost inconceivable inhumanity and trying to understand why people do these things,” he adds. “They’re also in love with the detective process — the romance of police detection. The audience loves seeing cops doing their work.”
A&E’s “The First 48” — that is, the first 48 hours following a homicide — is still going strong after more than 20 seasons. Recently the U.K.’s Channel 4 launched its own true crime platform, True Crime on Channel 4.
John Smithson, an Oscar nominated (“127 Hours”) and BAFTA- and Emmy Award winning producer, agrees that true crime is paying dividends in terms of its extraordinary popularity (podcasts are also big) and by virtue of the breadth of creative ambition that people like him can bring to these nefarious stories. “It would seem there is an insatiable appetite for true crime. There are certain genres that never seem to ebb and flow. Natural history is one and true crime is another,” he says. “There’s something about it — both scripted and unscripted — that has this incredible appeal. Increasingly, scripted is inspired by true crime.”
“The popularity is universal across platforms. It’s been a keystone for the old, traditional broadcasters. It’s become a keystone of cable and now the streamers.”
Free from the demands of having to tailor stories to accommodate ad breaks and the other time restraints of traditional linear schedules, pay and on-demand services have given filmmakers the freedom to craft their grim stories on a big canvas.
It also helps that with the ubiquity of bodycams and security cameras, the ability to access video footage and rely less on shadowy re-enactments of crime brings greater authenticity to true crime docus.
Whereas once the story of a murder or a violent robbery would be told in an hour, multi-episode series are now the norm for the most ambitious true crime fare.
“We’re in a race to the top, [striving for] originality and quality — and with the money to do it. There are now equal levels of ambition and creativity, whether it’s scripted or non-scripted,” Smithson says.
“I, Sniper, the Washington Killers,” produced by Smithson’s Arrow Pictures, plays out over six episodes. It recounts the shocking account of 17-year-old Lee Malvo and Gulf War veteran John Muhammad, who went on a shooting spree in the D.C. area that resulted in the death of 10 people over 23 days in 2002.
The series, shown by Vice in the U.S. and Channel 4 in the U.K., took 15 years from conception to completion and is typical of highend true crime docus that involve costly, time-consuming edits.
“Once upon a time you’d do something like this as, at most, a two-hour special but now you do it as a box set,” says Smithson, who credits the streamers with raising the bar for true crime. “There’s no question the streamers have acted as a catalyst.”
“The streamers have exposed people to a new way of storytelling,” echoes Olivia Morgan, acquisitions and co-production executive at U.K. boutique distributor BossaNova.
While many of the shows that cut through are editorially and visually ambitious, true crime TV’s core audience remains the same. Murder, mayhem and the mob are a staple part of a lot of viewers’ screen diet. Many shows are aimed at suburban females who tend to watch a lot of daytime TV.
“So many of our viewers are women in their 40s,” Korn says. “A lot of the victims are women … and there is this identification and affinity with the perils that women experience in society.”
He adds: “For some women — and this is not to trivialize it — crime stories have a bit of a soap-opera quality to them. Some of the titles, ‘Nightmare Next Door’ or ‘Women Who Kill,’ have a tabloidesque or soap-opera aspect.”
Morgan agrees: “Female viewers do absolutely love true crime. It’s a human-interest thing — the human stories that are involved in these horrific times. When you tell a story very well, it captures the audience’s empathy as well as the horror.
“Why do people watch horror films? We can’t explain why people are obsessed with the dark side of humanity, but they are. Obviously, true crime captures something in what is traditionally termed the female psyche.”
Morgan says true crime TV needs to evolve to the point where there is less emphasis on the male gaze and some of the other cliches of the genre. “You don’t want to fall into the trap of ‘Here’s another rape of a blonde girl.’ When you’re developing true crime, it’s important to be aware of how the material can be sensationalized,” he says. “You need to be a responsible distributor and encourage development that veers away from the traditional male-focused narrative and think about how the story is relevant to today and appeals to modern audiences.
While the past content includes “a real penchant for the ultimate victim being female,” that’s not actually the case.
“Unfortunately, there are more murders committed against women,” Morgan says. “Statistically, more men murder men than women murder men so it’s always going to be a bit one-sided. These shows need to be research-based, rather than sensationalist and build on the stories from the point of view of the investigation and have a genuine point of difference that isn’t that kind of unhealthy ‘Wow, isn’t it dreadful that this actually happened?’ These days you need to be cleverer than that.”
Clearly, producers need to be sensitive to the feelings of the victims and their families to avoid gratuitously sexing up the crime. “Anyone who works on these programs is constantly on a tight rope of trying to create something that is compelling. It’s easy to cross a line into areas where, as a filmmaker you feel less comfortable,” Smithson says. “You’ve got to be aware that you’re dealing with real people and real victims.”
At Mip TV, BossaNova is launching two true crime series: Phoenix Television’s 10-part “Murder: First on Scene” (part of Variety’s Top 20 London Screenings selection), a mix of U.S. and U.K. cases that bowed on CBS Reality in the U.K.; and Rare TV’s “Cold Case Killers,” concentrating on British crimes.
While these both deal with murders, there are signs that some of true crime’s recent hits — including Netflix’s “Inventing Anna” and “The Tinder Swindler” — are moving away from killers and leaning into fraudsters. Crypto crime is another area of criminal activity that is of growing interest to producers.
Not that anyone expects TV true crime to clean up its act anytime soon and abandon the serial killer.
“Finding the different angle is the challenge in true crime. One reason it’s so enduring is because there are so many different angles to pursue,” Korn says.
And, regrettably, there’s no shortage of criminals and their victims.