Just in time for the holidays, CBS News’ 48 Hours Mystery presents a three-part series that looks at harrowing cases of true crime through the eyes of the victims who got away.
At first blush, Live to Tell may not sound like holiday fodder (A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving it is not). But according to Susan Zirinsky, executive producer of 48 Hours Mystery, these stories are meant to be redemptive and inspirational. They all feature survivors of violent crimes who help the authorities solve their cases.
“We’re offering the intensity and drama of the crime story, but there is a note of hope and inspiration, which I thought was a positive way to take on a crime when people are with families,” Zirinksy says.
The limited-run series trades the traditional correspondent-fronted hour for first-person accounts. It kicks off Nov. 28, with the story of Krystal Surles, who was 10 years old in 1999 when she was attacked and left for dead by serial killer Tommy Lynn Sells. Surles was staying at a friend’s house in Del Rio, Texas, on New Year’s Eve when Sells broke in and stabbed Surles’ friend 16 times as Surles watched. Before he left, he slit Surles’ throat. But the 10-year-old managed to stagger to a neighbor’s house and eventually helped the police identify Sells, who confessed to multiple murders.
CBS first aired the Live to Tell limited-run series last February, when it won its Saturday time slot in total viewers and its target demographic, ensuring a repeat performance.
The series is only the latest in the extension of the 48 Hours brand, which includes a book series from Simon & Schuster (part of CBS Corp.) and the Website Crimesider, a crime blotter with articles about murder cases currently in the news as well as updates on past cases.
The blog, which launched last June, is the most popular blog on CBSNews.com, averaging 9 million page views each month. CBS News is also in discussions with the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children to feature missing-children cases that have received a dearth of media attention, according to Zirinsky.
To be sure, 48 Hours Mystery’s focus on true crime stories hasn’t won the program any high-minded journalism awards. But Zirinsky is unapologetic. Asked about criticism that the program is exploitative and voyeuristic, she responds: “I am a journalist by trade. I’m incredibly proud of the work we’ve done, the journalism we’ve done. We’re not making these stories up. They exist in time and space.”
She ticks off hard-news stories on which 48 Hours has been out in front, including the case of Marty Tenkleff, the Long Island man who spent 17 years in prison for the wrongful conviction in the bludgeoning deaths of his parents.
“Peel back the layer on any event and there is a human story,” Zirinksy says. “I do not consider it a crime–pun intended–to be cinematically rich in our broadcast. So if I’m bringing excellent journalism and a cinematically rich broadcast, everybody benefits.”
Zirinsky adds that since the Sept. 11 attacks, her unit has been the go-to crew for breaking news specials, most recently for coverage of the deaths of Michael Jackson and Ted Kennedy.
“When an event of a dramatic nature happens, we morph back into a more traditional magazine,” she says. “On a week-in-week-out basis, law and justice is our journalism. That’s where our focus is. When there are breaking important events, we become the primetime venue for those developments. So in both roles, we feel that our moral compass is intact.”