For many fans of true crime drama, watching sordid sagas of murder and revenge had long been regarded as an occasional guilty pleasure — certainly not a pastime to brag about.
But in an unexpected twist, true crime shows have emerged as the leading suspect in the killing of a good night’s sleep and the slashing of productive workdays. And viewers aren’t just discussing the shows at the office water cooler; they’re parsing them out on social media and itching to solve the crimes on their own.
Crime dramas like “CSI” and docudramas like “Dateline,” which mix documentary footage with analysis and dramatic narrative, have long pulled in large and loyal audiences. But the recent successes of cinema-vérité-style programs like “Serial,” “The Jinx” and “Making a Murderer” demonstrate that long-form, open-ended storytelling can provide an even more potent formula for grabbing an audience by the throat.
The new breed of crime chronicles are particularly effective because they invite viewers to work alongside investigators as they attempt to solve confounding cases, said Michael Arntfield, a former police detective and professor of literary criminology at Western University in Ontario, Canada.
“Viewers who wouldn't normally be amenable to the often lurid nature of traditional true crime broadcasting or publishing — where creators are often exploitative and giddy in their reciting gory details or making light of crimes and tragedies — are gravitating to the genre as it gets smarter,” he said.
“The new format, with the lingering question mark, serves as a prompt for viewers to get involved and do their own research — to come to their own conclusions," Arntfield said. "Viewers in turn become more than just viewers; they see themselves as constituents in the process, and in the case itself."
The new school of true crime stories covers everything from little-known crimes, barely covered by the local press, to trials that received wall-to-wall media coverage. Their subjects range from soft-spoken and amiable to creepy and reclusive.
The narratives themselves now unfold on a wide variety of platforms: TV networks, cable, streaming services and in podcasts reminiscent of pre-television radio thrillers.
For all the differences in composition and presentation, the shows share the ability to attract gigantic audiences hungry for tales of murder and quests for justice.
“Serial” became the fastest podcast ever to reach 5 million downloads on iTunes, according to Apple. The podcast continued to lead iTunes charts for months after its final episode on Dec. 18, 2014.
The March 15, 2015 finale of “The Jinx” drew more than 800,000 viewers, and another 258,000 when it aired a second time later the same night, according to Nielsen.
While Netflix doesn’t report viewership, metrics company Symphony Advanced Media told NBC News that about 7.8 million people watched the season finale of "Making a Murderer" within a month of the entire series being released on Dec. 18, 2015. Ten days after the show dropped, nearly one in five adult television viewers were tuning into the show, according to Symphony.
In another demonstration of the drawing power of "Making a Murderer," nearly 130,000 people were inspired to sign a White House petition requesting a pardon for the show’s subject, Steven Avery — who appealed his conviction the 2005 murder of Wisconsin photographer Teresa Halbach earlier this year — and co-defendant Brendan Dassey. The flood of signatures prompted the White House to respond that the president cannot constitutionally pardon a person convicted of a state criminal offense. A separate "Free Steven Avery" petition on Change.org garnered more than half a million signatures.
Arntfield, the former detective turned criminology professor, said the explosive growth of varied platforms — like Netflix, YouTube and iTunes — has given storytellers creative freedom that was lost when true crime was adapted from its roots in print to the small and big screen. That includes the opportunity to return to the “long-form narrative” used by writers like Truman Capote and to deviate from the norm by telling stories that don’t necessarily have a neat conclusion, he said.
“Historically, true crime (on TV) was always episodic — half-hour or hour specials, the bulk of which was syndicated programming,” he said. “Competing media platforms allow for a diversification of a storytelling formula … for customizable viewing and the creation of more earnest content, not meddled with by the need for ads.”
Keith Findley, an assistant criminology professor at the University of Wisconsin Law School, said the unresolved ending — even a guilty verdict under questionable circumstances — is a key element in luring viewers.
“The public is beginning to become more aware that innocent people are sometimes convicted,” said Findley, who has been involved in numerous wrongful conviction cases and who helped represent Avery in his successful appeal of a rape conviction in 2003. “Stories like ‘Serial’ and ‘Making and Murderer’ give us a glimpse into how that can happen.”
“Serial,” for instance, left listeners wondering whether the podcast’s subject, Adnan Syed, was given a fair trial in the 1999 murder of his ex-girlfriend, Hae Min Lee. Several aspects of the case, including an ignored potential alibi witness and phone records that didn't match the prosecution's theory left fans wondering if Syed really was guilty of strangling Lee and burying her body in a Baltimore park. A judge is currently deciding whether Syed, who has maintained his innocence, deserves a retrial.
The possibility that innocent people might have been found guilty of a crime they didn't commit gives viewers some skin in the case, Findley said.
When that happens, “We fail to convict the truly guilty people,” he said. “We all have a shared interest in making sure we get it right.”
That interest spills onto social media, including online forums, where people discuss theories ad nauseum of who might have actually committed the crime because they haven't been provided with “a convenient or neatly buttoned-up ending,” Arntfield said.
"'Making a Murderer' is a good test case because everyone reacted differently," said journalist Lisa DePaulo, who has spent more than three decades covering the kinds of crimes that are turned into entertainment.
DePaulo wrote the magazine piece “Who Killed the Gangster’s Daughter?” about the 2000 murder of Susan Berman shortly following her death.
That case was again chronicled in the widely popular 2015 HBO true crime miniseries “The Jinx,” which gained more attention when its subject, real estate scion Robert Durst, was arrested in connection with Berman's murder a day before the finale aired. He was formally charged two days later and is expected to be sentenced in the next month on separate gun charges in Los Angeles, where he could serve up to 85 months while he awaits the murder trial.
DePaulo said that Berman's murder would have likely been solved years ago had Twitter, Facebook and Reddit existed in 2000.
"There wasn't justice for Susan because her narrative didn’t play into the media of the time," she said.
In a social media-obsessed era, however, real world mysteries fuel seemingly inescapable online conversations and whet the public’s appetite for more of the same, Arntfield said.
“Now people generally have a knee-jerk suspicion to conventional narratives of open-and-shut cases. People want to believe there are alternatives,” he said. “Now we have an engine to perpetuate the conversation once the series is done.”
That virtual conversation, in turn, prompts people to tune into true crime shows because they are afraid of missing out on the newest cultural phenomenon.
“It’s a push-pull effect,” Arntfield said. "'Murderer,' for instance, I needed to binge watch or opt out of social media to avoid spoilers, as it was pervading the Internet and various platforms to the point that there was no avoiding it — I would be excluded from this dialogue that was occurring in my world.”
DePaulo, who admits she’s “on Facebook a little bit too much” can relate to that craving for each and every detail and conjecture in the latest trending drama. That's why she has been drawn to crime stories for the better part of her career.
“True crime is a window into human psyche like nothing else — It's who they are, how they live,” DePaulo said. “It's human nature, and it’s the worst of human nature, but it's also the most revealing thing.”