Nets Get Head Start On JonBenet Anniversary

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The main character in several fall shows is turning out to be a 6-year-old girl who was tragically murdered 20 years ago. As viewer interest in true crime programming, including HBO’s The Jinx and FX’s and ESPN’s O.J. Simpson-related series, continues to flourish, multiple networks are looking to capitalize on the JonBenet Ramsey case that captured a nation’s attention two decades ago.

Several nets are hustling to get projects to air and capitalize on the trend. “The whole genre has never been more prominent or better covered,” says Henry Schleiff, group president at Investigation Discovery (ID). “The more the merrier, because we are the home of true crime.”

While the 20th anniversary is technically in late December, the networks are debuting their series in September to get ahead of the curve. A&E on Sept. 5 premieres the two-hour documentary The Killing of JonBenet: The Truth Uncovered, including a 1998 video of JonBenet’s brother Burke talking about the case and father John addressing allegations against the family. “The evidence all paints a picture—a theory about what happened and who might be responsible,” says Laura Fleury, senior VP/head of programming at LMN and International, A&E Networks, and an executive producer on the film.

On Sept. 12, ID raises the curtain on the three-hour, three-night JonBenet:An American Murder Mystery, featuring what it says is the first interview with John Mark Karr, who confessed to the murder, along with unseen footage from the crime scene.

CBS takes its turn Sept. 18. The Case Of: JonBenet Ramsey is a six-hour docuseries from Tom Forman and Critical Content that reunites original investigators and features new interviews. CBS calls the scope of the investigators’ work “unprecedented.” That includes a full-scale model of the Ramsey home in Colorado.

Lifetime takes a different tack with the movie Who Killed JonBenet?. A scripted vehicle means Lifetime can depict what happened in 1996; the movie also offers a voice-over from a modern-day JonBenet, who would be 26. No premiere date has been set. “An unsolved crime, a young girl, a suburban, upwardly mobile family—a lot of people see themselves in the Ramseys,” says Liz Gately, Lifetime executive VP and head of programming.

While it’s no shock that there’s substantial interest in the JonBenet case 20 years later, network chiefs may be surprised by the sheer number of TV projects connected to it. Yet some note there was still plenty of interest in ESPN’s OJ: Made in America documentary just weeks after FX’s scripted American Crime Story series on the Simpson case wrapped in April.

“American-style violence, even though it is difficult to pin down exactly what that is, is working as a very efficient brand,” says Deborah Jaramillo, Boston University assistant professor of film and TV studies.

The programmers expect that there’s enough audience for all of them and hope the projects can perhaps shed light on a case that has perplexed investigators, and the public, for 20 years. “We hope this might be enough to reopen the investigation,” says Fleury, “and move it in a new direction.”

Michael Malone

Michael Malone, senior content producer at B+C/Multichannel News, covers network programming, including entertainment, news and sports on broadcast, cable and streaming; and local broadcast television. He hosts the podcasts Busted Pilot, about what’s new in television, and Series Business, a chat with the creator of a new program, and writes the column “The Watchman.” He joined B+C in 2005. His journalism has also appeared in The New York Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Playboy and New York magazine.