The O.J. verdict is in, and by any measure, the first installment of FX’s American Crime Story acquitted itself well. The limited series showed that America’s taste for true crime, particularly when there’s a boldface name or two involved, is insatiable, and new series in development from major networks show that the trend will stick around at least through 2016.
Susan Zirinsky, senior executive producer of newsmagazine 48 Hours on CBS, has seen her share of real-life murdered spouses and missing children on TV over the years, but suspects there’s more of it in the works these days. That includes a Law & Order: True Crime spinoff from NBC and a JonBenet Ramsey-focused limited series on CBS in the works. “Crime has always resonated [on TV], always been a staple of society,” says Zirinsky, who notes the genre’s elevation from guilty pleasure to proper culture. “But there’s been a second coming for it in the current climate.”
The true crime trend started not with The People v. O.J. Simpson, which began in February, but courtesy of the podcast sensation Serial in the fall of 2014, say multiple sources. Then it was The Jinx on HBO in early 2015 and Making a Murderer on Netflix later in the year, leading up to FX’s 10-part Simpson series.
The trend is truly multiplatform—a radio-sponsored podcast, premium cable, basic cable and subscription video-on-demand, with broadcast TV in on the game in the coming months. “This cluster of programs all targeting higher-end demos seems to have triggered a cycle,” said Deborah Jaramillo, assistant professor of film and TV studies at Boston University, “wherein a story with built-in audience recognition can be packaged as ‘quality,’ rather than as an exploitative or campy TV movie.”
The People v. O.J. Simpson averaged 12.6 million total viewers, counting non-linear views, through its first eight episodes, ranking it No. 3 on the all-time list of FX original series, according to the network, behind American Horror Story: Freak Show and Sons of Anarchy. “We always thought there would be a lot of interest, it being O.J.,” said Eric Schrier, president of original programming at FX Networks and FX Productions. “We didn’t ever think it would be as widely watched as it was.”
Next up in the American Crime Story series is a season focused on Hurricane Katrina. FX isn’t saying much about the project, while Nina Jacobson, executive producer, said ACS is all about “watershed” stories affecting America. “There’s a before and after in the way you see the culture, the country, the world,” she said. “They’re different after the case than they were before.”
The franchise has almost endless possibilities, believes Schrier. “There’s no limit to the amount of installments we can do,” he said, “as long as we continue to have good ideas and Ryan [Murphy, exec producer] continues to want to do it.”
Who Wants More Juice?
Indeed, there’s no shortage of tabloid- (and TV-) worthy crimes around the nation. Investigation Discovery (ID) has built an entire network around the crackly hum of the frantic 911 call. Series include Motives and Murders and Fear Thy Neighbor, and ID teased a handful of new series at its upfront presentation in early April, including People Magazine Investigates and Hard Evidence: O.J. Is Innocent.
Henry Schleiff, ID group president, said the glut of true crime around the dial is a boon for ID. “It’s the single best advertisement we can have for our network,” he said. “Our reach extends tenfold by virtue of these networks planning content in this space.”
Both the NBC and CBS true-crime projects are tied to ignoble 20-year anniversaries. The CBS series, which the network has not officially confirmed, looks to be an anthology, the first installment an unscripted close-up of the murder of children’s pageant star JonBenet Ramsey in her home in 1996. CBS is said to be shooting for a fall 2016 debut.
Over at NBC, storied producer Dick Wolf is developing the first installment of Law & Order: True Crime, an eight-episode scripted series focused on Lyle and Erik Menendez, convicted of murdering their parents and sentenced to life in 1996.
Jennifer Salke, president, NBC Entertainment, said the series will “recreate the cultural and societal surroundings of both the murders and trials when people were not only obsessed with the case but examining how and why these brothers committed these heinous crimes.”
NBC would not provide additional details. Schleiff, for one, welcomes Wolf, creator of the various Law & Order series as well as the Chicago Med/Fire/P.D. franchise, to the world of true crime. He quips: “I’m delighted to see Dick finally step up to the big leagues.”
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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.