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TCA17: Cable Nets to Deliver More Arresting True-Crime Shows

Beverly Hills--A handful of cable networks held court with TV writers through the presentation of several true-crime-themed shows during the cable portion of the Television Critics Association summer press tour last week.

Networks showcased new scripted shows or documentaries that ressurected high-profile, sensational crimes ranging from the 1970s hunt for New York City serial killer David Berkowitz (Investigation Discovery’s Son of Sam: The Hunt For A Killer) to the 2002 abduction of teenager Elizabeth Smart (Lifetime’s original movie I Am Elizabeth Smart). 

The shows continue a trend led by several recent true crime-themed TV projects surrounding the 1995 O. J. Simpson murder trial and the 1996 murder of JonBenét Ramsey that have corralled viewers by retelling sensational crime stories for a new generation of viewers that may have heard about the events but don't know all of the sordid details.

“I think (ESPN’s O.J. Simpson: Made In America) was really a game changer in terms of really giving some context to the time the crime happened and fitting that crime within the larger context of what’s going on in the culture,” Joe Berlinger, director/executive producer for Sundance TV’s Cold Blooded: The Clutter Family Murders told TCA writers.

The Cold Blooded special, airing later this fall, looks back at the 1959 murder of four members of the Clutter family in a small Kansas community. The crime was at the center of Truman Capote’s 1966 book In Cold Blood, which arguably gave birth to the true-crime genre.

Another true-crime show profiled at TCA, Discovery Channel’s eight-part miniseries Manhunt: Unabomber chronicling the 1990s hunt for domestic terrorist Ted Kaczynski, drew more than 1 million viewers in its Aug. 2 premiere on a network known more for unscripted fare like “Shark Week” programming and Naked and Afraid than for its scripted projects.

Lifetime’s original movie I Am Smart -- debuting in November -- throws a wrinkle into the genre in that the survivor of the crime, Smart herself, serves as narrator for the film, providing a unique perspective surrounding events that captivated the country 15 years ago.

Smart's abduction is even more terrifying and harrowing in her own words. She told a riveted audience of TV critics that she struggled with reliving her experiences through the film. “I was very proud of (the movie), but I hate it at the same time,” Smart said.

As headline-grabbing as these events were back in the day, Son of Sam: The Hunt For A Killer contributor Dr. Scott Bonn argued at TCA that these events would have become even more infamous had they happened in today’s social media-obsessed world.

“If this case happened today, God forbid …  it would be the biggest crime story in the history of the world, without a doubt,” Bonn said.

R. Thomas Umstead
R. Thomas Umstead

R. Thomas Umstead serves as senior content producer, programming for Multichannel News, Broadcasting + Cable and Next TV. During his more than 30-year career as a print and online journalist, Umstead has written articles on a variety of subjects ranging from TV technology, marketing and sports production to content distribution and development. He has provided expert commentary on television issues and trends for such TV, print, radio and streaming outlets as Fox News, CNBC, the Today show, USA Today, The New York Times and National Public Radio. Umstead has also filmed, produced and edited more than 100 original video interviews, profiles and news reports featuring key cable television executives as well as entertainers and celebrity personalities.