Murder Shows—The New Soap Operas for Women?

How a network built on grisly, true crime programming is cultivating a devoted female audience

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Investigation Discovery

Detectives investigate a dead woman's on the Investigation Discovery channel's show, Dead of Night.

Someone once joked that one of the most awkward things to be caught doing when you die would be Googling yourself. But being remembered as a narcissist isn’t as bad as what people might think of me if they saw my DVR. A stack of programs like Deadly Women, Born to Kill, Swamp Murders, Evil Kin, and My Dirty Little Secret, could easily give the impression that I’m not the sanest or safest person to be around. Yet, I just can’t stop myself from watching shows about women (and a few men), who kill.

Apparently I’m not the only woman with a taste for blood. Investigation Discovery, (ID), a network with the tagline “your guilty pleasure,” that devotes 24 hours a day to true crime programming is the fastest growing network for women, jumping from the 50th ranked network in ad supported cable among women ages 25-54 to 8th since its launch in 2008. Its average daily viewership now rivals that of its parent channel,The Discovery Network. Marquee hosts include soap legend, Susan Lucci, and veteran news anchor, Paula Zahn. And this month, MSNBC star anchor Tamron Hall debuted Deadline: Crime with Tamron Hall.

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So what is it about true crime programming like Investigation Discovery or network series like Law & Order: Special Victims Unit that strikes such a chord with women? The storylines feature unsettling and often graphic situations where women are victims of violence, or are perpetrators of violence—a genre that might seem to appeal more to men. But the kind of TV mayhem that appeals to women is different. Focusing on the consequences of violence, and more specifically, showing aggressors being punished, is one of the keys to ID’s success with women, says Jane Latman the network’s head of development. “I think there’s a cathartic journey that the audience goes on that in the end makes you feel somehow safer. It’s counterintuitive, but when the handcuffs are on, justice is served and the perpetrator is behind bars and you see these real people getting on with their lives you kind of feel like ‘okay I can go to bed and I’m not going to check my door ten times.’”

That emotional connection is the hook for many female true crime fans. Brad Bushman, professor of communication and psychology at Ohio State University explains that this kind of true crime tends to dwell as much on the consequences for the victim as the act violence itself, the effect is different from the kind of action sequences that glamorize violence: “I wish more media would do that–show the long-term effects [of violence].” And when it comes to female perpetrators, Bushman notes that women are increasingly comfortable with the genre in general. “There are more violent female role models in the media. There are a lot of women these days that are carrying guns and kicking people’s butts,” he says. “Societal norms are changing. It used to be socially unacceptable for women to engage in such behavior.”

Sara Kozak who is the network’s Head of Production says there is another reason women love ID programming. Viewers watch and think, “Whew. Thank goodness my family’s normal. My relationship’s normal.” Or at least normal compared to, say, the Heidt family in which a brother killed his brother because he wanted to continue his affair with his sister-in-law. It’s a family saga that has fueled several ID programs.

When Discovery Communications re-launched the network as a channel devoted to true crime in 2008, women were not an obvious target for its growth strategy. Jane Latman credits Henry Schleiff who became President of Investigation Discovery in August 2009 for zeroing in on the female viewers. That’s when the network adopted the “your guilty pleasure,” moniker and began branding different nights of programming with specific crime themes. While networks like NBC once had “Must See TV,” ID launched “Femme Fatale Fridays” “Saturday Night Seduction.” Schleiff already had a track record of success in growing female audiences, having previously served as president of Crown Media Holdings, which includes the Hallmark Channel in its portfolio.

Schleiff also had true crime experience as Chairman and CEO of Court TV which led him to believe that women were a likely audience for ID. “What we learned there and certainly what you see here is that women really love not just the crime and justice genre but the storytelling and puzzle-solving all around it. I think you see this across the board.” He notes that this is not simply the case with women television viewers, but readers too. “Women are the largest buyers of mystery books and suspense thrillers. Every week you look at that New York Times bestseller list and whether it’s Grisham or Patterson or Scottoline across the list the number of suspense thrillers and books being bought by women is enormous.”

Tamron Hall hopes her new program will be as educational as it is diversionary, particularly on domestic violence, an issue that has touched her family. Her sister was a victim of such violence and Hall speaks of her sister’s death in the advertisements for her new show, which she refers to as a “call to action.” Similarly, actress Charisma Carpenter of Buffy the Vampire Slayer fame speaks openly of being an assault survivor in promotions for the new program she is hosting for ID called, Surviving Evil.

Much like Lifetime Television became known as the go to network to reach women on issues like breast cancer and voter registration in the nineties and early 2000’s, ID is trying to become the go to network for reaching women on issues related to crime and safety.With the launch of the new show Surviving Evil, which premiered August 28th, ID sponsored free self-defense classes at New York Sports Club taught by professional wrestler turned trainer Eve Torres. Then there is the network’s partnership with Glamour magazine on a campaign called “Inspire a Difference,” in which women doing heroic work were nominated to receive a cash prize for their charity. And on Monday, Lucci, Zahn and Hall joined actresses Kristin Chenoweth, Brittany Snow and Emily Deschanel at a glitzy reception honoring victims ’ rights activists , co-hosted by ID and Glamour Magazine.

The female safety pitch might be intended to help thwart any criticism that the network is marketing horrific stories of abuse as entertainment. And Latman acknowledges ID will have some detractors because “it’s a walk on a darker side.” But she believes ID is making a difference. The network often gets letters from family members of victims of violence whose stories were featured on one of the network’s programs that say “thank you for treating my story with such care.” Calling the survivors “courageous” she says that for many of the, sharing their story and finding a measure of closure, “There’s a healing power to that.”

Hopefully if anyone snoops in my DVR, they will assume that’s why I’m watching.