How Murdertainment Terrifies You for Fun and Profit

Is watching hours on end of true-crime television bad for your nervous system? I'm in trouble if it is, and so are a lot of other people.

I’ve spent entire afternoons engrossed in the Investigation Discovery channel’s addictive, low-budget television programming. With lurid titles such as “Southern Fried Homicide,” “Nightmare Next Door” and “Scorned: Love Kills,” these true-crime stories spellbind with their gritty narratives and cheesy reenactment scenes.

A camera lurks from behind the bushes outside a quintessential suburban home. Suspenseful music plays. An ordinary family is introduced and made to be relatable, and then someone is tragically killed. This is one of the many formulaic narratives for phenomenally popular television shows on the true-crime network. Founded in 2008, ID has quickly become one of the fastest growing networks, broadcast in over 100 million homes across 157 countries and territories.

“We will always be anchored in these real stories. That’s what our viewers crave….People are most concerned about violent crime when they feel safe,” said Investigation Discovery manager Kevin Bennett. “You tell a story in one hour. You’ve got to establish right away that the victim — or survivor — is someone you would have liked. And then the unbelievable happens.”

Programs such as “Deadly Women,” “Wicked Attraction” and “Who the (Bleep) Did I Marry?” are mainly geared toward women aged 24-54. ID ranks as one of the top five cable networks for this demographic in the United States and tops the rating charts for women in Poland, Britain, Mexico and other countries. ID has garnered success partly because of its foreign distribution.

“Crime is universal,” said chief executive of Discovery Communications David M. Zaslav. “The stories are set in an American town, but it could be anywhere.”

Investigation Discovery president Henry S. Shleiff had the idea to form a network that included stories about crime, romance and murder based on the popularity of crime dramas such as “CSI” and “Law and Order.” He designed the network as “a place where viewers can consistently know that regardless of the hours, regardless of the day, that they will always be able to flip to this network and know that they are going to get a story of the mystery, crime, suspense genre.”

The network has sweepstakes contests for self-described “ID addicts.” Shleiff adheres to a formula for grabbing ID viewers: grab their attention in the first five minutes, reward them at the end of the program (with a resolution to the case or cases), and repeat the cycle again. Using memorable titles and keeping the tone of the network consistent are also important tactics in ID’s marketing strategy.

Is ID an informative guilty pleasure or a means of perpetuating fear of crime?

Though women are the primary viewers of ID, the network found that many married couples watched the programs together, echoing a theme in the 2013 “Informative Murder Porn” episode of South Park. The episode depicted married couples having sex after watching what South Park termed “murder porn,” or sensationalist crime dramas featured on Investigation Discovery. Unlike in the cartoon, though, “murder porn” shows seem to have the opposite effect on viewers, instead inspiring fear.

“The 2011 “Chapman Survey on American Fears” found strong associations between watching true-crime TV and a number of fears, including: "running out of money, getting sick, identity theft, stalking, heights, clowns, blood, wars, youth culture and terrorist attacks. In other words, all that Informative Murder Porn serves as a general fear heightener, raising American stress levels in a time of record safety.”

Though crime has been on the decline for the last two decades, the survey showed that for Americans, crime, particularly violent crime, is the number-one fear.

“What we found when we asked a series of questions pertaining to fears of various crimes is that a majority of Americans not only fear crimes such as child abduction, gang violence, sexual assaults and others, but they also believe these crimes (and others) have increased over the past 20 years,” said Edward Day, who led this portion of the survey. 

These programs construct narratives that harness common fears, but ultimately end with justice being served. Part of the appeal is the puzzle-solving aspect of true-crime shows, which allow the viewer to engage with the case being solved. Women in particular are drawn to this kind of entertainment: “Women are the largest buyers of mystery books and suspense thrillers. Every week you look at that New York Times bestseller list and whether it’s Grisham or Patterson or Scottoline across the list the number of suspense thrillers and books being bought by women is enormous,” says Shleiff.

“Focusing on the consequences of violence, and more specifically, showing aggressors being punished, is one of the keys to ID’s success with women," says Jane Latman, the network’s head of development. She continued, "I think there’s a cathartic journey that the audience goes on that in the end makes you feel somehow safer. It’s counterintuitive, but when the handcuffs are on, justice is served and the perpetrator is behind bars and you see these real people getting on with their lives you kind of feel like, Okay I can go to bed and I’m not going to check my door ten times.”

The network also avoids showing grisly graphic violence in favor of human-interest details.

ID has sponsored free self-defense classes for women and has contributed to victim’s rights charities. Many network executives claim that these shows are “good” for women because they encourage preparedness, another example of the media putting the burden of crime on the victim. 

A recent ad for the new ID show "Fatal Encounters" imagines a murder victim's thoughts from beyond the grave: "If I hadn't opened that door, I might be alive today," the headline reads over the face of a young blonde woman. What-if scenarios such as this place blame on the victim and inspire fear. While encouraging caution can be helpful, the ad insinuates it was the victim’s fault that she was murdered rather than the man who committed the crime.

While previous true-crime shows such as “Unsolved Mysteries” and “America’s Most Wanted” similarly capitalized on American fear of crime, these programs served a purpose because the cases featured had not yet been solved. More than 1,100 fugitives were captured thanks in part to viewer tips from "America's Most Wanted," but nearly all of the cases on Investigation Discovery’s programs have already been solved. One exception is “Dark Minds,” a program in which the hosts use the advice of an unidentified serial killer to find insight into old unsolved cases.

Some victim’s rights organizations object to real-life murders being made into television programs whose sole purpose is entertainment. Murder Is Not Entertainment (MINE) states: “Murder is a multi-billion-dollar entertainment industry that encourages society's indifference to the seriousness of crime and violence in this country. 'Murdertainment' continues to re-victimize those who have already been affected by the murder of a loved one, ignores the aftermath of murder and sets a poor example for the nations' youth.”

But executive Jane Latman believes sharing stories of crime on ID can be empowering, and said the network has received letters of support from victim’s families.

Murder has always been a common topic for art and entertainment. Edgar Allan Poe once wrote, “The death then of a beautiful woman is unquestionably the most poetical topic in the world.” While ID shows can be fun to watch, these infotainment programs can also distort perceptions about crime and inspire fear, along with sucking hours out of your day.

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