Pulp Non-Fiction

Racy True-Crime Shows Are Killing With Women Viewers
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Scary Halloween-themed programming may be dead and buried until next year, but there’s still a lot of frightful content currently on cable channels featuring real-life blood, murder and mayhem — and women viewers can’t get enough of it.

True-crime reality series with such ominous titles as Fatal Vows, Homicide Hunter, Snapped and Fatal Attraction are killing with female viewers who can’t stop watching dramatic re-enactments of grisly murders committed by real-life women who make fictional horror movie characters like Freddy Kreuger and Jason Voorhees seem rational by comparison.

Witness an episode of Investigation Discovery’s docuseries Deadly Women, in which a professional female wrestler is sentenced to 759 years in prison for a series of grisly murders of mostly elderly women, committed out of a longstanding resentment felt for an unloving, abusive and mostly absent mother.

“Fiction can’t compare with human nature,” Henry Schleiff, Investigation Discovery, American Heroes Channel and Destination America group president, said. “We can’t make these stories up.”

GUILTY PLEASURE

True crime-based reality content is a guilty pleasure for women viewers, who are just as interested in the sins leading up to the crimes — such as jealousy, betrayal or infidelity — as the acts themselves or the repercussions that follow, network executives said.

“It is the ultimate drama with the ultimate stakes, and that is why it has broad appeal with women,” Rod Aissa, executive vice president of original programming and development for Oxygen Media, said. “The themes within an episode — whether it’s sin, jealousy, love or relationships — are themes that women like in their programming, and make it incredibly relatable to them.”

The true-crime reality genre is in effect an off shoot of the popular crime genre that has always drawn big audiences in mass entertainment, from TV shows to movies to books.

True crime “is a universal theme and genre ... if you look at what’s coming to a movie theater virtually every week, in addition to the tentpole action fi lm, it’s usually a movie in the crime genre,” Schleiff said. “If you look at this week’s New York Times book list, 10 of the top 15 [bestsellers] were in the mystery/suspense/crime category, so it’s not hard to see why it works on television.”

On the small screen, scripted crime procedurals such as NBC’s Law & Order franchise, CBS’s CSI and NCIS franchises and Criminal Minds, ABC’s Castle and HBO’s True Detective are popular with both men and women due to the fast-paced action, compelling storylines and attractive characters.

But it’s unscripted true crime dramas based on real crimes affecting real people that have increasing appeal specifically to women.

“Women have a unique intuition — they love the twists and turns, as well as the high stakes in emotionally compelling stories,” Schleiff said. “Most of all, they love the fact that these stories are real. This is not another scripted drama.”

That bodes well for Investigation Discovery, which produces more than 650 hours of true-crime programming each year, including such salacious titles as Wives With Knives, Who the (Bleep) Did I Marry? and Southern Fried Homicide. The network’s true-crime focus has helped make ID the most watched cable network among adult women (age 25-54) for September on a Nielsen live-plus-three-day basis, according to ID.

Catchy show titles and top-name talent — such stars as Roseanne Barr (Momsters), Susan Lucci (Deadly Affairs) and Wendy Williams (Death by Gossip) host shows on the networks, and Barbara Walters's American Scandal With Barbara Walters premieres tonight (Nov. 2)  — are the secret to ID’s success, according to Schleiff.

The network even has a social-media website dubbed IDaddicts.com, in which mostly female viewers talk about their “addiction” to ID’s programming. “It’s not unusual for viewers to watch three, four and five hours of ID at a time,” Schleiff said.

Another long-running show, Oxygen’s Snapped — which features women who have killed or maimed their spouses and lovers — has been successful because it showcases all the elements of a crime so that viewers can determine who is ultimately responsible, according to Aissa. Now in its 11th year, Snapped remains one of Oxygen’s most-watched programs and has spawned a pair of spinoff s: Snapped: Killer Couples and Snapped: She Made Me Do It.

“While the crimes more often than not are very dark, the nature or why they got to the point of where they have appeal to women viewers,” Aissa said. “It’s all rooted in themes of love and relationships — there’s usually a sense of a love gone wrong, of some kind of betrayal, or a longing for a better life. Watching those things go bad has appeal.”

Viewers also have a need to see justice meted out to the perpetrators — whether that comes from the police or those affected by the crime — D’Angela Proctor, head of original programming and production at TV One. The network’s Fatal Attraction, which profiles true life stories of women whose lives are ruined by the men they love, always ends with the bad guy going to jail, she said.

Not surprisingly, women make up more than 60% of Fatal Attraction’s audience, per TV One.

“What these true-crime dramas give you is a sense that there is justice in the world and that all can be right,” Proctor said.

Added Oxygen’s Aissa: “What women love is that there is an outcome and justice is served — someone is held responsible for someone’s murder, and that’s complete satiation for viewers. It’s empowering to watch justice get done.”

ID’s Schleiff also said the shows provide opportunities for women to learn what to do — and more importantly what not to do — when faced with situations depicted in the shows.

“[Viewers] feel that they can learn something, whether it’s through a show about stalking or whether we do a show about crime on the Internet,” he said. “Not everything we do is going to have a morality lesson, but there is a huge amount of learning that comes out of these shows.”

A&E’s The First 48 Hours tackles the desperate hunt for a killer, based on evidence found at the crime scene, over a two-day period. One of the longest-running true-crime series, the show — now in its 14th season — ranks as the top nonfiction crime/justice series on cable, averaging 1.4 million viewers.

“It’s that kind of play-along fun of solving something, versus just an action-oriented program that has a female appeal,” Elaine Frontain Bryant, executive vice president of programming for A&E, said. “Also, the authentic nature in which we tell the stories makes you feel like you are there along with it.”

Executives said there’s no end in sight to the genre, as female viewers in particular continue to gravitate to the strange but alluring mix of emotion, blood, death and justice. TV One later this year will debut a new series, Justice by Any Means, which spotlights people who take matters into their own hands to get justice for their loved ones, according to Proctor.

Oxygen’s Aissa said the network is looking at other opportunities to play in a genre in an effort to target younger female viewers, but would not reveal specifics.

PLENTY OF FODDER

With the amount of salacious headlines generated everyday around the world, ID’s Schlieff said there will always be an appetite for true-crime stories on television.

“Just pick up a consumer newspaper, and I guarantee you that there’s a front-page or second-page story in this genre,” he said. “We have a $3 billion marketing budget that comes from the incredible support we get from all of the newspapers and the magazines in the world who write about a crime, and to the extent they promote it, they’re also promoting our network and the genre.”

RATINGS CHARTS

Crime Pays

Reality shows based on true crime have been a ratings magnet for Investigation Discovery in its appeal to women aged 18-34. With 653 hours of original programming dedicated to the genre, the network is No. 3 in the demo this year on a total-day basis, behind USA Network and HGTV.

Network                       Women 18-34 Viewers (000)
USA Network . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 229
HGTV . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 224
Investigation Discovery . . . . . . . . . 206
Adult Swim . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 201
TNT . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 189
Nick at Nite . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 185
Nickelodeon . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 178
TBS . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 165
Food Network . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 159
Disney Channel . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 158

SOURCE: Nielsen

Reality’s Most Wanted

A snapshot of how several true-crime reality series on basic cable stack up within the female 25-54 demo:

Program                          Network                       Viewers *
The First 48 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . A&E. . . . . . . . . . . . .424
Nightwatch . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . A&E. . . . . . . . . . . . . 370
Homicide Hunter . . . . . . . . . . . . . . ID . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 313
Fatal Vows . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . ID . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 261
Snapped . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Oxygen . . . . . . . . . . . 161
Snapped: Killer Couples . . . . . . . . . . Oxygen . . . . . . . . . . . 141
For My Man . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . TV One . . . . . . . . . . . 106
Fatal Attraction. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . TV One . . . . . . . . . . . 103
Snapped: She Made Me Do It . . . . . . . Oxygen . . . . . . . . . . . .71
* Women viewers 25-54 on a live-plus-same-day basis, in thousands

SOURCE: Nielsen

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