Crime Documentaries Like ‘Making a Murderer’ Are Picking Up Where Newspapers Left Off

TV's new hits take a page from print

Netflix CEO Reed Hastings recently bragged in a letter to shareholders about two things: his booming business, which hit 75 million subscribers in 2015, and his very hot content. "In late December, we debuted a 10-part documentary series, Making a Murderer, which has enthralled audiences and critics alike and triggered a national conversation on fairness of the American criminal justice system," the executive wrote.

The docuseries—which chronicles Steven Avery's rape conviction and exoneration after 18 years in a Wisconsin prison, followed by a murder charge two years later—even inspired a rebuttal podcast and a special on the cable net Investigation Discovery.

Making a Murderer drew immediate comparisons to 2014's most buzzed about true-crime series, the podcast Serial, which told the story of Baltimore high school student and convicted murderer Adnan Syed. It was downloaded more than 60 million times and became the first podcast to win a Peabody Award. Serial returned in December with the case of Army sergeant Bowe Bergdahl, who the Taliban held captive for five years in Afghanistan.

Has the true-crime trend changed the field of investigative reporting? And what impact, if any, does it have on traditional media in the game?

"These programs are stepping up at the same moment when newspapers and network television are defunding the kinds of independent units that can produce and sustain long-form journalism," explained Henry Jenkins, a journalism professor at the University of Southern California and a Peabody judge. "In that sense, a film like Spotlight [the current Oscar contender about The Boston Globe's investigative team] seems nostalgic for another era, less a celebration for what the press can do today than a nostalgic evocation of what the press used to be able to do well."

Serial creator Sarah Koenig has described her podcast as "a 10-hour audio documentary about an old murder that I did not solve." And yet, like HBO's The Jinx, a six-part miniseries last year about real estate heir and accused murderer Robert Durst, it proved to be engrossing for the public. "I think, I hope, what it means is that contrary to what we thought, people do have patience for journalism that takes its time," Koenig said in her Peabody acceptance speech.

Uncertainty seems to be part of the appeal of these docuseries, which are less like a drama that can be binge-watched over a weekend. In the case of Serial, the audience returned week after week, listening to and debating the details with friends and co-workers.

True-crime programming has garnered so much audience and buzz that SundanceTV's The Staircase—an eight-part investigative series from 2004 on the murder trial of novelist Michael Peterson, whose wife mysteriously died after falling down a flight of stairs—was recently made available on its app and website.

"If this genre survives, it will be because the public wants a particular relationship to news which has to do with working through complex sets of facts together to reach a collective understanding of what has happened and what should be done about it," said Jenkins. "They do not want the journalist in control, telling us, 'That's the way it is.' They want the journalist struggling to stay one step ahead of us, figuring it out as they go, and thus constructing a game in which we can all participate."

Even as Serial delivered big for the genre, Koenig and sponsor MailChimp, traditional TV and its advertisers have so far been on the sidelines of this trend.

"I think long-form investigations are finding a home on nontraditional outlets like Netflix and podcasts because people crave great stories," said Kevin Sullivan, executive producer of Reveal, an NPR series and podcast produced by the Center for Investigative Reporting and Public Radio Exchange. "Podcasts, and radio in particular, provide an intimate experience for the listener that newspapers and traditional TV stories can't replicate. People feel connected to what's happening to the people in the stories, and they end up caring about an issue they didn't even realize was important."

But Allen Sabinson, a former executive at NBC, Showtime and A&E, thinks broadcast TV will tap into the trend. "Television has always sought to capture lightning twice, and then twice more," he said. "Undoubtedly, there's no shortage of such true crime cases about possible judicial injustices. So buckle up your seat belt and prepare for a long ride."

This story first appeared in the Jan. 25 issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.