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Navigating new trends in the global content business.

Watching the TikTok detectives

TikTok detectives and YouTube vloggers are turning social media into the Wild West of true crime content, much to the concern of veteran TV producers in the space.

Will Hanrahan

In January 2023, police investigating the disappearance of British mother-of-two Nicola Bulley in St Michael’s on Wyre, Lancashire, found the small village besieged by so-called ‘TikTok detectives’ livestreaming murder conspiracy theories to their followers on social media.

Bulley’s body was later found in the River Wyre nearby, with a subsequent inquest finding that she had died due to accidental drowning. In the aftermath of the tragedy, Lancashire Police and Crime Commissioner Andrew Snowden singled out the voyeuristic viral videos filmed by influencers, saying they “resulted in vile abuse to Nicola’s family and friends.”

Far from a one-off phenomenon, producers of true crime and blue light content say such scenes are becoming increasingly common.

Steve Warr, Group CEO of London-based prodco Raw Cut, makers of 22 seasons of Police Interceptors for Channel 5, said: “While we’re out on the streets following police officers doing their work, if it’s a big enough crime incident there’ll be a dozen people stood with mobile phones filming it. Some are livestreaming it and others will edit and upload their footage when they get home.

“True crime is the fastest growing area of the internet, and these people are making their content for £150, while it might cost us tens of thousands of pounds.”

Warr was speaking at a Content London panel session that saw factual producers and distributors discuss trends in the true crime and blue light space.

Raw Cut was founded in 2002 and has produced programming such as The Murder of Sadie Hartley, for ITV, and Cops UK: Bodycam Squad, for free-to-air digital channel Really.

Warr is proud of the fact that Raw Cut employs a dedicated legal team to ensure all its programming adheres to broadcast regulations and safeguarding standards. However, he questions whether his online rivals have any such concerns.

“There’s quite a weird parallel set of ethics going on,” Warr told delegates. “All our shows are heavily legaled, yet on the internet you’ll find lots of true crime and blue light content that hasn’t gone through any type of legal process at all.”

Steve Warr

Evidence of the proliferation of true crime in the unregulated digital realm can be found all over video-sharing platform YouTube.

There, dedicated crime channels from amateur content creators amass millions of views – even though the editorial tone of many of these vlogs could be described as irreverent at best and offensive at worst.

LA-based YouTuber Bailey Sarian has attracted more than seven million subscribers to her Murder, Mystery & Makeup vlogs, in which she discusses chilling homicides while casually applying cosmetics to her face.

One video alone, titled ‘Jeffrey Dahmer: Inside his messed up mind’ has gained 26 million views alone. Another, about Victorian-era serial killer Jack the Ripper, sees her set the scene with the following observation: “The neighbourhood of Whitechapel sounds pretty cute, but during this time it was rough, okay?”

Meanwhile, fellow YouTuber MissMangoButt often bakes cakes while holding forth on gruesome murders. At time of writing, she has created 747 videos for 1.5m subscribers with titles such as ‘She was kidnapped by hot evil guy on her wedding day.’

The frivolous tone of such content has seen many legitimate factual producers accuse online vloggers of trivialising the very real consequences of serious crime.

“I feel a bit uncomfortable with some of it,” says Will Hanrahan, MD of UK-based factual prodco FirstLook TV (FLTV). “As bona-fide programme makers, we have to set ourselves a higher standard than that.

“Television has to keep an eye on the fact that out there on the internet and in the world of social media, there’s a thriving business in crime. It’s like the Wild West.

“FLTV is quite a conscience-driven true crime content provider, whereas socials and the internet aren’t necessarily driven by those ethics.”

Since 2015, Hanrahan has overseen the launch of 18 returning series in the UK, Europe, and the USA including Meet Marry Murder (A+E, Netflix, Lifetime), My Lover My Killer (Paramount, Netflix) and A Killer’s Mistake (A+E, Netflix).

FLTV is also a founding member of the Association of True Crime Producers (ATCP), comprising 15 true crime indie prodcos which have joined forces to establish best-practice guidelines for the genre.

Kate Beal

Kate Beal, CEO of UK indie and true crime producer Woodcut Media, has helped found the ATCP and says: “It’s something I have worried about and have been thinking about for the past year, which has led to the formation of the Association of True Crime Producers to tackle exactly that,” she says.

“It came from a worry for the victim’s families when we all run to the same story and fight over it. There needs to be some rules of the game and fair play among each other, and most importantly, with victims and families. We all want a commission, but it’s only television. We’re thinking about the best ethical approaches.”

The ATCP says it is committed to the highest professional standards in true crime production, with all members signing up to a set of guidelines that prioritise duty of care for contributors to their programming.

It meets regularly to ensure all members conform to the highest ethical standards and support the integrity of true crime production.

With prodcos now increasingly competing with online content creators to capture the attention of true crime devotees, FLTV will launch its own direct-to-consumer podcasts series and social media short film offerings later this year.

“We’ll still self-censor and stick to broadcast regulations on those projects,” Hanrahan said.

“I think non-broadcaster true crime makers often cross the line in glorifying murderers as if it’s all some form of entertainment. If any of our content fell into that salacious, sensationalist category, I’d be very disappointed.

“One of our most commonly used expressions at FLTV is ‘we give victims a voice.’ We’re trying to show that justice has been done.”