I wrote about True Crime As Entertainment a few weeks ago. This time I have a slightly different point to make and it’s more about the morality of true crime on television. I am midway through Death on the Beach which is about numerous suspicious deaths and murders on the Thai Island of Koh Tao. I have to watch a lot of these TV documentaries to write Crime Guy because the TV film-makers have the highest budgets and often get the top interviews. Often, but not always. My preferred source of true crime is the really good podcasts that sometimes get better, more detailed and more nuanced interviews because they have more time to dig into the details. The one that jumps to mind is The First Degree with Billy Jensen and Alexis Linkletter, but there are many others, including the brilliant West Cork.
Once you watch a few true crime TV documentaries back-to-back, the format becomes more obvious. These are not really true documentaries, looking under every stone and considering every detail. They are primarily designed to entertain, and that’s why I have a problem with them. Yes, they pull in casual viewers who would not seek them out and that in turn is a new set of eyeballs on a case that might generate a new lead and secure a conviction. But I do not believe that many documentary producers are really trying to solve a case. They just want you to watch to the end.
This is how to make someone watch to the end of a multi-part TV series. You have to break the story up into episodes, of course, but most TV channels also carry breaks for adverts. So you break up each episode into chunks as well. Then, you arrange the presentation of the facts so that each segment ends with a mini cliffhanger, a question, a reason to watch more. The bigger cliffhangers are left to the end of an episode, to bring you back next week.
Even the best true crime stories are sometimes short of cliffhangers. If you can’t quite arrange the cliffhangers in the right place for the one-hour breaks, there is another trick you can use. If you tell various strands in parallel, looking at the story from different angles, you can always conjure up a little gasp from the audience at the precise time you need it. The pure streaming services like Netflix are not plagued by adverts, but they still use these techniques to keep you glued.
Another trick you can use is to edit the best moments of each story together and show them in a montage at the start of each episode, and sometimes at the end and in the middle as well. This is not only a brilliant way to keep people watching, but it means you need to shoot less footage, which lowers the cost of the production and increases the profit margin. Repeating the most salacious details, or repeating the most dramatic CCTV clips therefore works in multiple ways to help the show climb the popularity charts. The more people watch, the more reviews you get, the more advertisers and subscribers you can pull in. It is easy to see the rollercoaster that the TV shows ride. And to be fair to the producers, it is impossible to resist this format.
For true fans of true crime, I always point people at the books and podcasts. They’re not as exciting, perhaps, but they are more genuine. By all means watch the TV shows, but please be aware that you are being played. If you want more detail, more nuance, you need to look somewhere else.