Crime and Viewership

Lifetime tonight will premiere a new primetime block of true crime-based programming, which is not surprising since the genre is making a killing with female viewers.

Networks, from true crime-branded cable outlets such as Investigation Discovery and Oxygen, to general-entertainment services like Lifetime, TV One and Reelz Channel, are reeling in female viewers attracted to dramatic re-enactments of often grizzly crimes — mostly committed by and against women — that are often as thrilling and more unpredictable than fiction-based scripted series.

Women are the majority of viewers for shows in virtually every subgenre of the category, from live trials to story-driven tales of murder for love to documentaries on injustices within the criminal system, according to network executives.

“People don’t think of women as watching crime dramas, which is a stereotype, and this proves that crime can pay with male and female viewers,” said Marc Berman, editor of TV industry website Programming Insider. “That’s been one of the major misperceptions in our business.”

Investigation Discovery currently tops cable networks in drawing adult women 25-54 on a total day basis, according to network executives. General manager Kevin Bennett said ID’s 650 hours of original genre content skews 60% female, with shows such as Homicide Hunter: Lt. Joe Kenda and Deadly Women, as well as news magazines such as The Real Story With María Elena Salinas — drawing even higher shares of women viewers looking to watch as crimes are solved or to get the story behind a sensational crime.

Related: ID Orders Season Three of ‘People Magazine Investigates’

“All ID viewers are drawn to the high stakes stories of human nature — the twists and turns of a case and the ability to play along and solve the mystery,” Bennett said. “Because it’s real people and real stories you always have that emotional storytelling, and that’s what ID tries to bring consistently.”

All About the Stories

While many of the stories depicted within the true crime category deal with very bloody, grisly acts of violence, Bennett said that what appeals to women are the stories that lead up to the crimes, as well as the justice that is meted out to the perpetrators.

“We are not about car chases and gunfights — we’re really about the emotional impact that these stories [offer] people and also about the mystery side of things,” he said. “These are real stories, so there is a real emotional connection.”

Oxygen has posted double-digit ratings gains among women viewers in total-day ratings since adopting an all true-crime format last summer, according to Nielsen.

Related: Oxygen Greenlights Eight Series Amid Transition to Crime Genre

Executive vice president of programming and development Rod Aissa said shows such as Snapped — now in its 23rd season — as well as upcoming series In Defense Of appeal to women viewers because they tend to get emotionally invested in the victims and sometimes the perpetrator, with audience memebrs often feeling they could find themselves in the particular situation depicted on-screen.

“A lot of women are watching because of the narrative and storytelling that exists in the true-crime stories, and the stakes couldn’t be any higher,” he said. “Women also invest in the victims, so at its best a true crime show is about the pursuit of justice for a victim and they allow the audience to invest in the women in a significant way.”

That doesn’t mean that men are left on the outside looking in at the genre. Aissa said men tune in when the subject matter pertains to their interests, particularly if it’s sports-themed.

The second installment of Oxygen’s two-part March docuseries Aaron Hernandez Uncovered — which profiled the former New England Patriots tight end who in 2017 committed suicide in his jail cell while serving time on a murder conviction — drew more than 1.25 million viewers and set records for a network true-crime program across all adults 18-49 and 25-54.

“There is an opportunity to grow the audience from just strictly female into some other co-viewing opportunities,” Aissa said.

While the audience for Reelz skews majority female, network executives said the genre can draw co-viewing opportunities with the right subjects.

“There certain types of crime stories you can do — if you’re going to do an historical story on Bugsy Siegel, that’s most likely going to attract male viewers,” said Steve Cheskin, senior vice president of programming. “But when you do stories that involve romance triangles or cases where children are involved like the [convicted murderer] Jodi Arias or [accused child murderer] Casey Anthony cases, you get an emotional connection.”

For Reelz, shows such as Copy Cat Killers and Murder Made Me Famous have often pulled in a 70% female audience. Cheskin added that the storylines in those docudramas can be so intense and involving, the genre often mirrors the appeal of scripted programming. “Many of the crime stories and the procedurals on cable and broadcast networks tend to skew female, so it isn’t surprising that these shows would follow that track, except that these are real stories instead of something that’s made up.”

Lifetime will take a stab at the genre beginning tonight (June 18) with a “Justice for Women” true crime-themed programming block hosted by Gretchen Carlson and anchored by the premiere of Live PD Presents: Women On Patrol. The series, a spinoff of sister network A&E’s Live PD docuseries, follows women law enforcement officers from around the country.

Related: How Twitter Engagement Has Cemented ‘Live PD’ as the ‘Cops’ for a New Millennium

Lifetime executive vice president and head of programming Gena McCarthy said the new true crime-themed unscripted series — combined with original films based on real-life crime cases — provides a unique approach to the genre.

“True crime is one of those classic perennial genres with inherent drama, high emotion, compelling twists and turns in the narrative, huge personal stakes and, ultimately, a big puzzle to solve,” she said. “Women love solving all of that and Lifetime women have a long legacy of really enjoying that content from the movies that we’ve done and continue to do based on ripped-from-the-headlines stories.”

If the true crime block — which also features the fourth season premiere of Escaping Polygamy — clicks with viewers, Lifetime will dive deeper into the genre with more scripted and unscripted content, according to McCarthy.

Spreading the Wealth

Other female-skewing and entertainment-based networks are stepping into the genre with content that will appeal in particular to female viewers:

TV One earlier this month debuted Evidence of Innocence, which profiles true stories of individuals wrongly convicted of crimes.

The Weather Channel this fall will premiere Storm of Suspicion, about crimes where weather played a central role to the narrative and investigation. While TWC’s audience splits evenly between male and female viewers, network senior vice president of content and programming Nora Zimmett said the true-crime nature of the series will most likely draw more female viewers to the channel.

“True crime has become an incredibly popular genre across media spaces; not only linear television, but podcasts and works of literary nonfiction are exploding,” she said. “We think this show will appeal to both sexes but would not be surprised if there were to be greater interest from women, given that research has shown that more women than men gravitate to the true crime genre.”

Related: True Crime Confidential

Upstart Law & Crime network, which launched in March, said women make up 60% of the audience tuning in for a slate of predominately live trial coverage.

Women viewers are willing to sit through the trial process and listen to witness testimony to determine guilt or innocence for themselves, network editor in chief Rachel Stockman said.

Stockman said women are more apt to talk about trials on social media: They make up 75% to 80% of the participants within the network’s digital platform and sites.

“Live trials are the biggest soap operas there are,” Stockman said. “You’re with the jurors watching this play out and you’re playing armchair detective trying to figure out how all of this plays out.”

The fervor for true-crime content among audiences in general, and in particular among women, isn’t likely to decline in the near future, according to executives. A recent Oxygen study showed that the percentage of viewers interested in the genre has grown significantly over the past year, with 46% of respondents saying they’re becoming more interested in true crime programming, up 33% year over year, senior vice president of strategy insights and research for NBCU’s Lifestyle Networks Dave Kaplan said.

He doesn’t think the rash of new players in the genre will create oversaturation across the various distribution platforms.

“I think that speaks to the fact that the genre is evolving and that there’s more diversity and content from a number of players,” he said. “People are getting to know the genre in new and different ways, and as a result is sparking this wave of interest. Some networks focus on the investigative/law enforcement side of it, others focus on the actual criminals themselves, others focus on the victims. From what we’re seeing the demand keeps growing, and the supply isn’t necessarily enough to sustain the demand.”

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.