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True Crime All the Time: Bulk Gives Way to Bespoke

by Ed Hersh.

If there’s anyone out there who doesn’t yet believe that the media ecosystem is shifting under our feet, the tumultuous events of the last few weeks at Netflix, Warner/Discovery and CNN certainly should convince you.

And nowhere can you see these shifts more clearly than in the still-burgeoning field of True Crime programming.


With True Crime so important in the non-fiction landscape, I asked veteran media executive and consultant Ed Hersh to share some thoughts on what networks want and what producers need to consider. Ed has spent more than two decades developing, producing, overseeing true crime programming at ABC News, A&E, Court TV, and Investigation Discovery. He currently advises networks and producers on development, pitching, and storytelling strategies through his company, StoryCentric.


The Old Blueprint

For more than 20 years, True Crime series on broadcast and cable have kept to the same basic formula:

A dead body is discovered, a 911 call is placed, a killer is on the loose, there’s a grieving family, dogged detectives who won’t quit fan out. There’s a shocking new DNA analysis, a perp is caught, a jail door slams shut, and a bouquet of flowers is left at a graveside. All interspersed with crime scene photos and re-enactments, and all told by a dramatic (usually male) narrator.

Case closed!

That highly successful blueprint (full disclosure: I was among its early architects) has yielded literally thousands upon thousands of hours of successful true crime, mystery/suspense programming on broadcast and cable, from Dateline: NBC to Forensic Files to Snapped to Cold Case Files.

It has spawned entire networks — from Court TV to Crime and Investigation to Investigation Discovery — and more recent high-profile converts like A&E, Oxygen, and ReelzChannel… and just this last week, Lifetime.

Top Podcasts

Right now, at least half of the top 20 podcasts in any given week are true crime related and there seems to be a never-ending supply of compelling real-life stories

Streamers Disrupt the Formula

But as the arms race among the streaming platforms like Netflix, Discovery+, Hulu, and Peacock to acquire binge-able shows continues, that once reliable true-crime formula has been disrupted. And producers need to adapt!

Without a 24-7 schedule to fill, the gold standard for streamers is no longer “bulk”… but “bespoke.”

Tiger King,” “Making of a Murderer,” “The Ted Bundy Tapes” were game changers for Netflix.

Their attention to immersive reporting, access, and storytelling created character studies of some truly frightening people.

Finding the NEXT standout, buzzy, single subject, multi-part mystery has become the holy grail for them and their competitors.

Yet these compelling series were produced over years, not months, based on hours of original shooting, interviews, archives, and reporting. Gone are the quick takes with generic re-enactments, short bites from cops and victims, and an over-dramatic narrator.

Changing Definition

The definition of “true-crime” has also changed; there’s an appetite to go beyond murder mysteries to chronicle alleged scams and frauds with the same level of detail and archive.

From the excesses of the Fyre Festival and WeWork to the alleged frauds of Elizabeth Holmes and her Theranos machine and the organized rigging of the McDonald’s Monopoly game in endless detail, the audience and therefore, the streamers, are fascinated with deep-dive looks at rogues who almost got away with it.

New Formula

As a result– and despite their efforts to not be formulaic — development and production executives tell me a NEW formula has emerged as they look to emulate these hits to create buzz and break through the clutter.

Here’s what they look for:

  • Single subject deep dives into crimes, characters and situations, many that are familiar to viewers (serial killers like Jeffrey Dahmer or high profile crimes like Jon Benet Ramsey), but with NEW insights
  • Stories told by the “witnesses” themselves; no narration
  • Stories with so many twists and turns they beg to told over multiple hours
  • Total and (even better) exclusive access to family, friends, prosecutors

Never Before Seen

But the MOST important ingredient for the streamers is the presence of “never before seen footage, stills and archive”

(Play a drinking game with yourself: everytime you see that in an announcement about a new streaming doc, take a sip… you’ll be drunk in two hours!)

What Producers Need to Know!

The bottom line: True Crime continues to be a ubiquitous, renewable resource for the linear networks, the streaming services, and therefore an important business for producers.

But now, instead of simply showing up with a good story, producers need to show up with well-thought-out storytelling, proof of access, new audio and video, and an ability to provide specifics on their unique take on that story. Remember: platforms no longer simply buy ideas; they are buying execution of that idea.

It means that pre-production and locking up archives and interviews are no longer the final steps, but the most important FIRST step.

Think bespoke, not bulk!


About Ed Hersh

Ed is the founder and chief strategist of StoryCentric, (www.storycentric.com) a consultancy that provides market intelligence and insight on development, production, and storytelling to networks and producers, including true crime). He can be contacted at ed@storycentric.com.


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