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Theme Festival - True Crime & Investigation

About this Festival

Everyone loves true crime and investigation series. We take a look at some of the biggest brands in this area of programming to uncover series that can deliver audiences for broadcasters looking for support in this area of the schedule.

Programming Profile

Making crime pay

True crime has broadened out from self-contained hours on US cablenets to become a juggernaut mainstream genre encompassing big-budget serialised streamer projects and dramas. Clive Whittingham assesses the market.


As the post-writers-strike boom in heavily constructed reality series subsided in the US, and drama came roaring back bigger and better than ever, the unscripted industry was in need of a boost – and true crime programming has certainly been that.


Initially, it stood out as a way to resist the oft-talked-about decline in US cable. While audiences, subscriptions and ad revenues declined amid increased competition and cord-cutting, channels like Discovery-owned ID and A+E Networks’ Crime + Investigation (C+I) were able to retain and even increase their viewership.


This prompted other cablenets that had previously focused on different kinds of factual or their own scripted – such as Reelz and Oxygen – to move into the genre, increasing the number of buyers and the quantity of content on the market.


The streamers’ famous algorithms soon told them there was gold in them there hills, and a different kind of true crime programming has become a key part of their offering. While the cablenets double down again and again on multi-part series of self-contained one-hour episodes with a clear resolution at the end of each, the streamers have found serialised true crime to be their sweet spot.


A+E Networks International is currently shopping one of the former in the shape of Znak & Co’s I Am A Killer, which has already aired on Netflix and C+I in the UK. Each self-contained episode features an inmate on death row, with season two managing to spotlight three of just 54 women who are currently awaiting execution in the US.


“The show unravels the story in an intimate way. You leave every single story with your mind changed multiple times about these people and their victims and their guilt. It’s a fascinating portrait of an insular world,” says Diana Carter, commissioning editor and head of talent at A+E Networks UK.


Despite the trend for serialised true crime, Carter says A+E is continuing to meet the needs of its predominantly female audience, which likes to tune in and watch hour-long shows with clear resolutions.


“As pay TV channels, we have successful appointment-to-view programming,” Carter explains. “We know they have the loyalty to the genre and hopefully our brand so they will stick with story to the end to see what happens. Our job is to keep that core viewer really satisfied, because we understand what she wants for her loyalty and we will deliver that.


“Our viewer likes to be taken to the brink of horror but still sleep soundly knowing that the bogeyman gets put away at the end.”


Making A Murderer

Multiple episodes focusing on one case – usually a miscarriage of justice and often without a satisfactory resolution at the end – are nothing particularly new. The Staircase, now part of Netflix’s offering, originally aired on French pay TV broadcaster Canal+ 16 years ago, and many other such shows came before this and have also aired since. But there’s no question this particular corner of the genre exploded with the big red N’s breakout they-got-the-wrong-guy marathon Making a Murderer in 2015.


Perhaps it exploded too much, however. While many found Making a Murderer’s first season of 10 episodes gripping, one experienced factual executive at a UK broadcaster told me at the time that the long, drawn-out nature of the show had left him feeling like he was “watching rushes.” That feeling only grew stronger upon viewing season two, even for fans of the show like myself.


McMillions, an HBO documentary on a decade-long scam involving the McDonalds Monopoly promotion, which recently premiered on the new Sky Documentaries channel in the UK, is among a spate of these multi-part docs made up entirely of talking heads that have followed.


The Jinx

Netflix’s The Pharmacist and How to Fix a Drug Scandal used individual incidents to tell a wider story about the opioid epidemic in the US. They, like McMillions, felt at least an episode or two too long, while Netflix’s Jeffrey Epstein: Filthy Rich and HBO’s The Jinx exposés throttled along at what felt like just the right length.


But without a schedule or set episode length to think about, and with binge-viewing all the rage, it doesn’t seem to matter to viewers, who are devouring these series with a voracious appetite.


Seven Network in Australia and Channel 4 in the UK, together with Oz producer CJZ, invited viewers to sit through four hours of Falconio: An Outback Murder (aka Murder in the Outback: The Falconio & Lees Story) stripped across consecutive nights, only to get to the end without offering any concrete conclusions.


The Oslo Killing

If you’re in the market for more of that, NENT Studios UK’s distribution arm (formerly known as DRG) has The Oslo Killing on its slate. The show was originally made by Monster in Norway for the local Discovery channels, with AMC joining the six-parter as a coproduction partner for its Sundance Now streaming service in the US.


The plot follows a bungled police investigation into a Norwegian cold case, with a long-time suspect of the crime now living in the US and the victim’s daughter setting out on her own journey to find the killer, having witnessed the crime as a four-year-old. Filmed predominantly in the English language and with individuals involved based in Argentina, Spain, Norway, Denmark and the US, it’s a perfect international story.


Elin Thomas, senior VP of sales at NENT Studios UK, says: “The way you stand out in this busy genre is to focus on a great story, a crime mystery, as told by people who are living the experience. Audiences of true crime are loyal to the genre; they can sniff out if it’s a spurious story or undermining their expectations.


Surviving R Kelly

“Resolution matters less than it used to; the genre has evolved. The effect the streamers have had has done wonders for the genre because, if the story is complex and powerful, you don’t need that resolution at the end. Look at the crime shows that are on Netflix – Surviving R Kelly, Don’t Fuck with Cats, Trial by Media, The Staircase – there are all sorts of ways of telling a crime story now that can be very satisfying to the audience in the end.”


Indie distributor Gary Lico, who handles the international rights to long-running US cable series Forensic Files, says demand for the 24-year-old series is still high and this alone shows the true-crime genre is here to stay. The popularity of the genre has also seen Forensic Files go back into production for Turner-owned HLN after a nine-year break, and international demand for the new episodes is high.


“The performance of the new episodes surpassed all expectations,” says Lico, who reports recent sales to ETV in South Africa and Curiosity Stream in Latin America, Singapore, India and Russia. “Foxtel in Australia premiered the new episodes last month; Astresmedia in Spain and RTL in Germany are scheduled for the summer; and CBS Reality launches the show in the UK this fall. The show’s credibility with the investigation community makes it a great alternative to the more salacious examples of the genre.”


Another area that, until very recently, had been extremely lucrative in this genre is ride-along observational docs with police forces. This has manifested itself in several ways, including fixed-rig obs docs such as Channel 4’s 24 Hours in Police Custody, which is made by The Garden and distributed by ITV Studios (ITVS), and live programming such as A&E’s breakout hit Live PD.


Live PD

Live PD had been a runaway success for the A+E Networks-owned cablenet but was cancelled this month in the wake of the death of George Floyd in police custody and subsequent protests against police brutality across the US. It was originally pitched as “live Cops,” taking one of the longest-running TV series in the US and making it live every Friday and Saturday night. The original Cops, which started on Fox before switching to Paramount Network, was also canned this month.


Still, the issues in the US, and with those two shows specifically, are unlikely to stem the demand for access docs in this area. A US version of 24 Hours in Police Custody, currently called 48 Hours in Police Custody, is in the works at Discovery, with The Garden once again working on the show. ITVS is distributing.


Meanwhile, Passion Distribution is coming to market with Inside the Police Force, which was produced by Tinopolis-stablemate Mentorn Media for ViacomCBS-owned UK terrestrial Channel 5. The show has a number of advantages for buyers, according to Passion’s senior sales manager Nick Tanner. First, the 4×60’ first season has already aired in the UK and is ready to go. Second, C5 has committed to an extended 16-episode second season to film in the autumn, which is exactly the kind of quantity of finished tape broadcasters with schedule holes will be craving.


“It’s a 360-degree look at how policing operates across one precinct,” says Tanner. “It gives viewers an insight into every aspect of the station, from the control room when the first call comes in, to the first responders, the custody desk officer, the jails and the decision to charge or release.


“When it’s access-led, closed episodes and volume are really important. Channels all around world want viewers to come again and again, and having a large order from the commissioning channel is a show of commitment and confidence in the product.


“This type of show driven by access sells extremely well all around the world, whether it’s British, Australian, American, German or wherever we’re following the police. There is a universality of story that transcends language barriers. For example, Australia would be interested in British policing not as a slice of British society, but because the stories resonate well. These access pieces add a sense of jeopardy, nowness and, eventually, resolution, which are common storytelling techniques across nations.”


Crime Watch XY

ZDF Enterprises, the commercial arm of German pubcaster ZDF, is also banking on the trend for live factual continuing. It has recently restored classic format Crime Watch XY to its catalogue, which has aired on ZDF for nearly 50 years and is also well known in the UK, where BBC1 still airs the show monthly. The series features re-enactments of unsolved crimes and interviews with the investigating officers, appealing to viewers to ring in with any information they may have.


Markus Templin, head of entertainment at ZDFE, says: “It’s a great mixture of the re-enactments, the live elements in the studio, and the immediate reaction from police in the studio as new evidence, hints and tips come in. It feels like a real event taking place.” The German version has spawned numerous spin-offs and themed episodes.


The Accused

Other ways to cut through a bigger genre have included focusing on the effects on the accused and their family, with examples including Channel 4’s Married to a Paedophile or Channel 5’s The Accused, both of which were produced by UK indie Brinkworth Films.


Patrick Hörl, founder and MD of German producer and distributor Autentic, says his company has done something similar in its Psychology of Con Artists, a series it currently has in development.


“We have a strong tradition of watching Scandi noir here,” Hörl notes. “It’s made its way to the UK over the last 10 years, and viewers have seen tons of series from Sweden, Norway, Finland and Denmark all with that distinct dark style. It’s a breeding ground for the interest in true crime, and it hasn’t reached its peak – we will see more good true crime in 2020 before it fades. There’s no sign of it weakening right now.”


The Bridge

The notion that this boom in serialised true crime has been helped by the popularity of Nordic noir drama such as The Killing and The Bridge has, in turn, fed back into the scripted genre, with dramatisations of real crimes currently proving popular not only with audiences but also big-name talent and writers.


UK commercial broadcaster ITV and US cablenet AMC coproduced one of the breakout successes of the lockdown period in Quiz. The three-parter, distributed by Sony Pictures Television, is about the British married couple who cheated their way to the top prize on Who Wants to be a Millionaire? in 2001.


AMC also has also aired, and is distributing, scripted adaptations of true crime stories such as Unspeakable, Unbelievable and The People v OJ Simpson. Meanwhile, White House Farm, an ITV series about an infamous British murder case, is being shopped by All3Media.


On the studios side, ITVS announced this week it would be distributing Anthony, a feature-length drama from Jimmy McGovern (Hillsborough) and LA Productions for BBC2 on the racist murder of black teenager Anthony Walker in 2005. It joins other fact-based crime drama series on its slate including A Confession and The Pembrokeshire Murders.


Julie Meldal-Johnsen, exec VP of global content at ITVS, says the style of Anthony will help it stand out in a crowded market. “It’s about what a murder means and it’s a poem to a life lost and what could have been. It’s Jimmy McGovern at his absolute best. It’s unusually structured: it starts with an awards ceremony and a recipient saying he couldn’t have done it without Anthony. It goes backwards and shows the life Anthony could have lived if he hadn’t been killed, all the great things that could have happened. It’s a beautiful piece.


“It’s 90 minutes for BBC2. When you talk about trends as a distribution business, with a commercial hat on, for years, one-offs wouldn’t have interested us. But there is room for them in the market now. We love a multi-part returning series, but we’re very proud to have a project like this on our slate.


“The reason true crime does so well in the UK and internationally is the emotional impact it has on people. You know in your heart it actually happened, and that makes it all the more powerful.”


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