“We are the OG true crime pioneers,” proclaimed 48 Hours executive producer Judy Tygard, who, along with her longtime colleagues Erin Moriarty and Peter Van Sant, hopped on Zoom with us this past Wednesday for a discussion about the 35th anniversary of 48 Hours.
CBS’ Saturday primetime newsmagazine debuted on January 19, 1988. Tygard, along with the aforementioned correspondents, have been with the broadcast since its formative years, including when 48 Hours was defined by covering subject for 48 consecutive hours. The show has since moved away from the hard two-day rule and eventually transformed into a true crime newsmagazine that allows for more in-depth storytelling, but at a similar pace that defined the original iteration.
Fast forward 35 years, and 48 Hours remains the most-watched non-sports program in Saturday primetime.
TVNewser conducted a lengthy interview with Tygard, Moriarty and Van Sant, where the trio spoke about the evolution of the program, how they approach crashing stories, the explosion of true crime podcasts and much more.
Here’s part one of our multi-part Q&A:
TVNewser: 48 Hours launched 35 years ago – all the way back in January 1988. How has the show evolved over the years and why do you think millions of Americans continue to tune in on Saturday nights?
Tygard: Shooting for two days and two nights became very limiting over time, and we could not give our viewers the resolution they craved. We experimented with single topic hours for a while – but we felt too far away from our roots. The audience was drifting. In 2004 [former 48 Hours ep] Susan Zirinsky took note that viewers responded to episodes dealing with law and justice more than any others and rebranded 48 Hours as a true crime. There is something honestly something so primal about that. People really see it [true crime] as a battle of good versus evil. They want to see justice for the victims, and our viewers love to follow along with the police investigations. They also like it when we shine our light when people don’t play by the rules. They love the wrongful convictions, and they love seeing how the system works. So, that’s why I think people keep coming back, for that satisfaction to know, “how did this turn out?”
Moriarty: I think that there are certain cases that really captured people’s imagination because of either behavior that none of us can believe. I’m just thinking of the [Alex] Murdaugh [murder] case right now. You have a DA who is accused of crimes that he would put people behind bars for, so that is such a twist; even the fact that he’s accused of killing his son, something that is beyond the pale and something we’re not used to.
Judy has also recognized that people are drawn to cases where young people are accused of killing parents, because again, it’s that same kind of difficult-to-understand behavior.
I personally find that people are interested in the legal system ever since OJ Simpson and the introduction really, in a high profile case, the use of DNA and when we began to realize that the jury system that we thought was invaluable, was really quite valuable, and that we could find out why. Our stories provide that, of course confessions or inadequate eyewitness identification. I think there is just this hunger for an interest in the legal system now.
Van Sant: Back in the day I contributed during that first season, and it was absolutely crazy. It was one of the most joyful times as a television journalist. We were creating this new genre, a team of correspondents covering a story on the run. Our camera people couldn’t put their cameras on tripods, they had to keep them on their shoulders. Sometimes, we would turn on the camera for 30 minutes at a time and not turn it off. As we were taking the viewer along on this journey of how we gather new stories, and they watch that before their eyes. It was just really something.
In my first season, I did an hour, nothing profound. It was the busiest travel day of the year for Denver Stapleton airport. I may have gotten three hours sleep over two days. Back then we carried around a digital stopwatch that was counting down the two days because if we went over 48 hours, we would put it on our track, and none of us wanted to do that. We violated that two day rule. Well, 10 minutes past 48 hours, we had this conversation. Things evolved because that did limit us, and what we do now is we have time to gather, write, do our journalism, but we keep that same spirit of high energy and high production value that 48 Hours created. We have the best editors, I believe, in television news, and we present compelling cases that feed this hunger of people not just in the United States but all over the world for how our judicial system works. The fact that all these cameras were finally allowed in can courtrooms all across the United States, for the first time, people had a front row seat to watch our judicial system at work, and it made for fascinating reporting and fascinating viewing.
Talk about how you two crash stories. What’s the production process like? Peter, I know you did something very recently on the Idaho student murders.
Van Sant: I’m someone that came from a long journey through local news. I worked in Idaho, Iowa, Nebraska, Arizona, Texas, before I got to CBS News. During that journey, I shot, I edited that began in film and moved on to videotape, I produced my own stories, I wrote all of my own scripts. What you get with Erin and me are two vets who love that process — the journalistic journey. We know how to work sources, we know how to find what’s most important in the story, and we know how to zero in on that. Erin is an attorney and I love watching her stories because she prepares like a prosecutor. She has a heart to go along with that. She has a way of being able to, to get through to people, get their trust, but then do her job for the viewer of asking the penetrating direct questions. We both pride ourselves in doing an incredible amount of research and preparation. When I go into the stories, I’ve read everything I can possibly read, and I’m ready to to confront people in a direct and informed way to draw out the most the best we can in our stories.
In the Idaho case, here’s the story: I went to Washington State University, which is nine miles from where these these murders occurred. This was deeply personal to me. I’ve been to Moscow [Idaho], many times. When I had no money, I went to Moscow for Karl Marx pizza. I still remember that was my big date offering to someone (laughter). To go back there and to work such a tragedy — I was able to get a hold of people in our communications department at Washington State, which is famous the Edward R. Murrow school; that’s where he went to university. We were able to work and get new sources. We had an enormous team on the ground, not only in Idaho and Washington, but also in the Poconos in Pennsylvania. We applied some of our 48 Hours skills from the early days, where we hit the ground running, we worked the phones, we worked sources, we went to houses, we talked to students in this case on the street, and one thing led to another and we ended up putting together I thought was the first comprehensive, powerful look at what had happened to those students in Idaho. It gave people a proper perspective, and brought CBS News journalism to boot to our storytelling. Very proud of what we did on the Idaho story.
Tygard: On Idaho, we put a team of six experienced readers on the affidavit that was released by police to make sure that we were understanding it, and we were getting everything right before we would put that in our scripts, because it was released very late. We had multiple readers to make sure we were on the same page with our understanding of what was in that document, because that was key to understanding the case.
The other thing that’s crucial to understand about who we are is after that show aired, during the air there was a huge outpouring of people who were thanking us for recognizing the victims as people, honoring their memory, memorializing who they are, what they meant to everyone, what the loss was. It became a widely shared thing on social media that we took great pains to balance the hour between this very interesting and unusual suspect, but we never lost sight of the people at the center of the case and the lives that were lost and the surviving roommates whose lives were upended and the ripple effect. That element, that takeaway that the viewer saw that, they got the information that they were hungry for, that they really understood the balance of what we were trying to achieve in giving recognition to the victims; that’s the single most important thing that we try to do week in and week out.
Moriarty: I agree that seems to be our big priority. I think there’s a lot of criticism, there’s so many shows out right now where there’s a concern that some shows give a platform to the defendant because people are interested. However, our focus has always been the victim.
When we’re talking about crashing, one of the advantages of working for 48 Hours is that nobody leaves. The show where there are people — Judy, me, Peter, almost from the beginning, editors who have been there almost the entire 35 years. When we go out into a field or crash, we’re really experienced, we know how to do it. We did the Amie Harwick case two years ago and we’ve done two since then. It’s a very poignant case of a young woman who was a counselor for women who had been abused, and then she ended up being, or at least the state accuses her ex boyfriend of killing her. We turned that around in a week. There were a lot of legal documents, a lot of issues with someone who had just been charged, but the fact that we have this team—No. 1, we do put a lot of people on when we’re crashing—who have so much experience on covering legal issues and reading legal documents, turning things around and working together. Because we’ve stayed working together so long, we are this highly polished team. I’m not just saying that, it honestly feels that way.
There’s been a good deal of talk in recent years about how folks of color don’t necessarily receive as much attention when they go missing. Is that something that three of you have been thinking about?
Tygard: We talk about that with our development unit, and we make a really concerted effort. We do cover all kinds of missing people all across the board, we have a have a track record that goes into it. It really came to a head with Gabby Petito. It was a little turning point that made us really do the shoulder shake and think about what stories we’re selecting and how we do it. I think that we mindfully and intentionally address that.
Part two of our interview with 48 Hours will publish later on Friday.