Audiences Keep Turning to Crime TV

Whether scripted or reality, law-and-order programming endures with viewers

If the last few years have taught us anything it’s that crime still pays — on screen.

This enduring format continues to dominate traditional broadcast networks, as well as on cable networks and streaming services.

Crime-and-justice-themed programming has entered a new golden age, with evolving viewing habits yielding high-end episodic specials (FX’s The People vs. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story, CNN’s Radical Story of Patty Hearst) and allowing the genre to dominate streaming platforms (Netflix’s Making a Murderer, Amazon’s The Hunted).

Crime shows are one of broadcast entertainment’s oldest genres, capturing hearts and minds since its earliest days. In the 1930s, the genre was fueled by radio shows such as Gang Busters, before it leaped onto TV screens in the ’50s with Dragnet. Crime helped pioneer the reality genre, with Cops and America’s Most Wanted, both of which were launched in the 1980s, well before the unscripted boom. In recent times, the CSI and Law and Order procedural formats have been scripted juggernauts for broadcast. Judge Judy dominates daytime, and even podcasting got in on the caper with Serial, from the creators of public radio’s This American Life.

Today’s crime programming caters to a broad swathe of viewers, which is what makes it such a versatile and rich genre, there are so many stories to tell, and so many platforms on which to tell them. It’s a universal language. America’s Most Wanted was derived from United Kingdom format Crimewatch, and some of the U.K.’s best translations, Sherlock and Broadchurch, are crime formats.

Unscripted true-crime programming is incredibly powerful and continues to dominate on cable, these are real stories, which seem almost unbelievable. The economics of these shows mean that many stories can be told. High-paid actors, elaborate sets or huge action sequences aren’t needed to bring these incredibly dramatic events into people’s living rooms. As such traditional cable has always been a rich platform for crime, no more so than today, with Investigation Discovery was the top-ranked cable channel in 2017 among women age 25-54, and Comcast’s Oxygen rebranded and flipped last year to true crime all the time.

Far from anonymous procedural reality programming, crime has yielded strong roles for women on TV on and off camera as executive producers and hosts. Whether it’s ID’s On the Case With Paula Zahn and The Real Story With Maria Elena Salinas, Exposed With Deborah Norville on Reelz, or the forthcoming Mysteries & Scandals with Soledad O’Brien on Oxygen, these shows have given women the chance to tell the stories they want to tell and play the leading role.

The Changing Face of Crime

And crime TV continues to evolve. Netflix’s Making a Murderer ushered in a new phase in the crime story, arching long-form storytelling; it was the streaming platform’s first bonafide hit. After its success quickly came the launch of FX’s The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story, swiftly followed by NBC’s Law & Order True Crime: The Menendez Brothers and HBO’s The Night Of. One could also consider FX’s Fargo as part of this evolving recent trend of high-end crime programming. These are high-budget, beautifully produced series, starring incredible actors like Cuba Gooding Jr., Edie Falco, Ewan McGregor, Kirsten Dunst and Riz Ahmed that have earned huge critical acclaim and ratings numbers for their networks.

Far from just entertainment there is a social value to these shows. They remind people that crime doesn’t pay, and that there are police officers out there who will stop at nothing to see wrong-doers brought to justice. These shows force us to look at the darkest parts of society, areas which fascinate us, but often reveal that while evil exists in humanity, good does prevail and justice does get served.

But as producers we can’t take our audience or the crime genre for granted. As with any show, human connection and story is paramount, especially as crime aficionados are devoted watchers. Whether working in scripted or unscripted, streaming or cable, viewers need to react to what’s happening on-screen. Characters need to be developed, and whether through writing or reconstruction, research is vital and hard yards are required well before the cameras start rolling.

America is hooked on crime. We’ll never run out of crime stories to tell or viewers to watch them.

Reprehensible yet riveting, crime shows are an intoxicating blend of fear, disgust, fascination and even twisted identification. But it’s not just entertainment: The genre carries with it a responsibility. We must not forget that in any crime there is a victim, and we have a duty to find stories that need to be unearthed, help justice be delivered and remind people of the human costs of crime.

Scott Sternberg is founder and CEO of SSP, a Los Angeles-and New York-based based production studio.