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date: 18 November 2017

Reality TV Crime Programs

Summary and Keywords

Crime reality television is a significant origin story in understanding reality entertainment. In the 1980s, crime reality television captured the public’s imagination with cold cases, ongoing criminal investigations, surveillance feeds, and live appeals to the public for information to catch criminals. Early crime reality television borrowed from other factual genres, including news reportage, crime and observational documentary, and crime drama; this mixing of different generic elements helped to create representations of crime that were a combination of dramatized spectacles, surveillance footage, and public appeals. What united this mix of factual and dramatic styles was the sense of liveness; the live address to the public and the caught-in-the-act camerawork contributed to an experience of watching as immediate and real. This feeling of liveness, a central component of television itself, meant that crime reality television was popular entertainment that also connected to the real world, inviting audiences and publics to engage with crime in their local neighborhood, in society, and in public debates about law and order. This was citizen crime television that had commercial and public appeal.

At some point in the origin story of reality television, crime was overshadowed by the global development of this entertainment genre. In early studies, books such as Entertaining Crime (Fishman & Cavender, 1998) or Tabloid Television (Langer, 1998) examined the influx of infotainment and sensational news reportage primarily on television in Europe, Australia, and America. These books were about reality television and addressed the first crime wave in the genre. Studies of the 2000s books, such as Reality TV (Hill, 2005) or Staging the Real (Kilborn, 2003), examined docusoaps and competitive reality and talent shows, addressing the second and third waves in the genre. More recently, companions to reality television (Ouellette, 2014) contain research on global reality television formats, as well as scripted reality or business reality, and analyze issues concerning politics, race, class, production, celebrities, branding, and lifestyles. Crime is conspicuous by its relative absence from these discussions: what happened to crime reality television? Today, true crime is flourishing in commercial zones, for example, on branded digital television channels like CBS Reality or the international surveillance format Hunted, and subscription video on demand true crime Making a Murderer. Many of these popular series tap into that feeling of liveness that was so crucial to early crime reality television, particularly the connection between representing crime, law and order, and the real world. This makes crime reality television a rich site of analysis as an intergeneric space where there are tensions surrounding the staging of real crime for entertainment, and its connection to traditional values of authority and duty, representations of ethnicity, gender and social class, and broader moral, legal and political issues.

Keywords: crime reality television, reality television, genre, popular culture, true crime, media audiences, entertainment formats, law and order, representations of crime


The origins of crime reality television are intertwined with the birth of reality entertainment, one of the most significant and controversial developments in popular culture over the past few decades. This makes the story of crime a central narrative in the broader makings of a genre that has become a driving force in the entertainment industry worldwide. The back story touches on several issues. First, there is the problem of defining reality television, something various scholars have called a genre, a format, and a phenomenon. These debates around the slippery nature of reality television point to the blurring of the boundaries between fact and fiction, and the cross-media platforms and distribution models for reality entertainment. This is a cultural form that works across public service and commercial media such as television, radio, news and print media, the Internet and social media, and it features within visual arts and material culture, such as film, novels, theater, leisure, and tourism (see Hill, 2015).

Second, there is the problem in mapping a hybrid form that includes a wide ranging mix of representations, from true crime stories, crime investigative journalism, crime documentaries and docudramas, and crime fiction and horror to the realm of law and order and legal contexts.

Third, the origin story of crime reality television encompasses key debates in the genre as it relates to crime, surveillance, and law and order (see Fishman & Cavender, 1998). These debates include representations of reality, commercial imperatives, cultural and social values surrounding the genre, and the representations of crime and its rational and emotional impact on audiences and publics (see Hill, 2000; Kavka, 2012 for discussion of emotion and affect). The history of crime reality television tells us something about the claims and values of realism within this cultural formation and the ways it is situated in a broader social, cultural, and media matrix.

To go back in time to the 1980s, a forerunner of crime reality television was the series Crimewatch (BBC, 1984–), based on a German program called Aketenzeichen XY … Ungelost (ZDF, 1967–), which started out as the first live crime appeal television program and is still running today in the United Kingdom. Jermyn (2007) charts the industrial context to the series at the public service British Broadcasting Corporation, analyzing the aesthetics of crime and the series’ longstanding relationship with audiences. In the 1980s, the show presented information about crime, appealing to the public for help; it mixed reconstructions of crimes, interviews with families and victims, crime scene photographs, CCTV footage, and studio appeals by civilian and police presenters. When the program host asked the public to phone in with information about the nation’s most wanted criminals, this was a direct invitation to citizens to participate in law and order. The interactive elements made the public feel a vital part of the program; and the affective elements, such as the dramatized reconstructions, made the public emotionally connect with the series, year on year. The famous catchphrase by one presenter “Don’t have nightmares. Do sleep well” was understood by audiences as a message to be on the alert for criminals everywhere; even your own neighbor could be on the most wanted list.

On a parallel track in 1980s America, a number of commercial network and cable channels were showing real crime television. There was Cops (Fox, 1989–) on the newly established cable channel Fox, a show that followed law enforcement professionals as they responded to crime in American cities; Cops is still running, with over 1000 episodes, making it one of the longest running series on Fox alongside The Simpsons (1989–). America’s Most Wanted also started out on Fox (1988–2013); it was styled on Crimewatch UK and ran for around 1100 episodes before cancellation. The series boasted over 1000 captures of criminals, helped by the public phoning in to a toll free hotline and, later on, an interactive website. Both early examples of reality crime programming featured a strong narrative of a politics of fear and a framing of the police and criminals within a discourse of “us and them.” In this way, the programs reinforced representations of crime that articulated political thinking at the time on conservative and neoliberal values for law and order. Research by Fishman and Cavender (1998) and Cavender and Bond-Maupin (1993) highlighted how crime programming borrowed from crime drama, and even horror films, in dramatizing an unsafe environment where citizens were urged to stay on the alert and cooperate with law enforcement in making their neighborhoods safe from criminals. As Fishman and Cavender (1998, p. 7) note, media representations of crime reflect social anxieties and reinforce dominant ideologies of crime, criminals, and victims.

According to Palmer (2014), these early reality crime formats from the 1980s flourished within the industrial conditions of American commercial television—there was a writer’s strike in drama production, and Fox was one of the first cable channels to fill gaps in the schedule with reality crime-based programming. Palmer also points out that changes in government policy during this period, including the increased use of surveillance, meant that the role of the police was focused on the containment and re-containment of city spaces; reality television offered “straightforward narratives of chase, capture and containment” in shows that eschewed any motives or explanations of criminal intent (2015, p. 253). Palmer argues that “since the early 1980s various agencies of the state have exhorted us to report crimes or any behaviour that looks suspicious … anxious to spread the message that constant surveillance equates with good citizenship” (2003, p. 14). In such a way, “the TV citizen becomes a member of the police, a restorer of law and order” (Rath, 1985, p. 200). This connection between crime entertainment and the politics of Thatcher and Reagan meant that critics of early crime reality television were alert to the framing of “populist common sense,” which contained a “rich mix” of themes such as the nation, the family, duty, authority, and traditionalism, and “aggressive theses of revived neo-liberalism—self interest, competitive individualism, anti-statism” (Hall, 1983, p. 29, cited in Jermyn, 2007, p. 29). Such a connection would help shape scholarship on the politics of reality television and the representation of crime and a politics of fear (Cavender & Bond-Maupin, 1993).

Jermyn (2007, p. 10) claims that “the aesthetics, narrative terrain and popularity of Crimewatch mark it as a key forerunner to the current reality TV movement, even though in the UK’s contemporary marketplace it would no longer be among the most obvious contender to bear the mantle of ‘reality TV’.” Note the term reality TV movement and the hesitation surrounding what is classified as reality television today. Jermyn is flagging the problem of defining something so far reaching as reality television about crime, and this is why she uses the word “movement” to signal an entertainment trend that is more than a television genre. Jermyn is also highlighting the dominance of other kinds of reality television, such as talent shows or scripted reality, which tend to attract higher ratings than crime. She is right to point out that while global formats like Got Talent (SYCO, 2006–) or structured reality series like Keeping up with the Kardashians (E!, 2007–) are likely contenders for the label of reality television, and most certainly topics for trending on social media, it is important to remember that crime has always been an influential element in the overarching narrative of reality television.

Defining Crime Reality Television

Early studies struggled to agree on a definition for crime reality television, and terms such as popular factual entertainment, reali-TV, and infotainment were used to describe programming such as Crimewatch or Cops. Infotainment was a common early definition for crime programming, merging two established areas of investigation in media as information and media as entertainment into one focus of study on real crime as spectacle. Articles like “Who’s Afraid of Infotainment?” (Brants, 1998) or books such as Tabloid Culture (Glynn, 2000) addressed concerns regarding the commercial imperatives of crime reporting in news and television entertainment programs, sidelining accurate information about crime in favor of sensationalism. Infotainment was a term laden with negative value judgments.

The term reality TV was widely used in the late 1980s and 1990s in reference to police and emergency services series, but it was not by any means the dominant definition in everyday talk about these kinds of programs. Unlike talk shows that were fully established by the 1990s, reality television had yet to settle into popular consciousness as a recognizable term. Critics wrote about “reality-based programming,” invariably with a scathing attack on the channels that hawked such poor-quality stuff, or on the news presenters that fronted sensationalist shows about speeding cars, bloody accidents, and drunken citizens. One academic study on actuality in popular documentary called it “reality” television, the quote marks signaling an uncertainty in the use of the word “real” (Kilborn, 1994). Another article on the political economic background of series like Cops called this new form “reali TV,” showing an even greater hesitation in coupling reality with this kind of programming (Raphael, 1997, 2009). After the global success of reality entertainment formats such as Big Brother (Endemol Shine, 1999–) and Survivor (Planet 24, Castaway, 1997–), reality television became a term associated with entertainment, particularly reality game shows and talent shows (Oren & Shahaf, 2012).

Jermyn argues that reality crime is constantly constructing and negotiating the boundaries between information and entertainment (2007, p. 15). At this point in time, the reality genre and the global entertainment format industry are trying to reinvent themselves by going back to their roots (Hill, 2015). Crime is capitalizing on the very fluidity of the genre, taking creative and commercial risks with the telling of true crime stories, the uncovering of cold cases, or representations of surveillance, law and order, and the legal system. In order to do so, crime embraces what we can call the intergeneric space of reality television and its transgressive use of fact and drama. Trends include branded channels on true crime, crime-sleuthing web series Making a Murder (Netflix, 2016–) or the weekly podcast (This American Life, 2015–), as well as competitive reality formats about pre-crime and surveillance such as Hunted (Endemol Shine, 2015–). The origins of crime reality television point to the circularity of the reality genre, as it returns to themes of law and order, a politics of fear, or justice and tradition. At the same time, there is a remixing and remediation of crime for contemporary digital environments, and audiences, users, and publics.

Crime Reality Television: An Intergeneric Space

Bignall suggests that reality television should be thought of as “a nodal point at which different discourses within and outside television culture have temporarily come together in an unstable conjunction” (Bignell, 2005, p. 171). This is a useful position to take for crime reality television, as it resists a single identity, adopting multiple aesthetics and appealing to various audiences living in different regions and cultures. Crime reality television is a container for a range of diverse programs, series, formats, and events in which elements of tabloid news, investigative journalism, documentary, sports, crime drama, and soap opera mix together. For Corner (cited in Hill, 2015, p. 9) “reality television is a new kind of inter-generic space rather than a genre.” In the book Reality TV (Hill, 2015), the idea of reality television as an intergeneric space is explored in more detail across a range of content and audience engagement. In this case, crime reality television has three distinct spaces that draw on subvariants of other genres across factuality, serial drama, and entertainment television.

World Space of Crime Reality Television

There is the world space of reality television programs set within law enforcement, courts, and other legal arenas. Many examples of the world space of crime reality television can be found in early forms of factual entertainment in the 1980s and 1990s, such as live crime appeal programs like America’s Most Wanted, docusoaps set in police stations, or crime and emergency services programming that follows personnel wearing bodycams, such as Police, Camera, Action! (Carlton and ITV, 1994–2010, U.K.). Today, series like The First 48 (2004– A&E, USA) or 24 hours in Police Custody (2014–, Channel Four, U.K.) tend to be set in real-world spaces and are often described as “fly on the wall,” “docusoap,” or “popular documentary” to signal the mix of observational style documentary and soap opera elements within this type of reality television. The intergeneric space of these series and formats set in real-world locations usually contain participants who are performing as themselves in recognizable social roles, such as law enforcement worker, legal professional, criminal, or victim. Crime reality television as world space connects the representations of crime in the television series with related news articles and online content, and with real-life investigations and legal proceedings. For example, 24 Hours in Police Custody made British newspaper headlines in 2016 when an episode showed the aftermath of a pub fight where one punch led to the death of a victim. The Daily Mail reported: “There is a harrowing moment in the opening of the programme as an officer's body-cam footage of the immediate aftermath sees the 24-year-old Lithuanian victim lying unconscious on the floor as the police frantically administer CPR.”1 The online news report followed the episode and investigation, with embedded video extracts from the series and a news update on the accused and their conviction for manslaughter.

A popular example of the world space of true crime is the documentary series Making a Murderer (Netflix, 2015–). This is a good case to consider because the series blurs the boundaries between true crime, popular documentary, and reality television. It is categorized by Netflix as a documentary, and there are many elements in the filming, editing, and careful fact checking that make it a documentary. According to one television critic “this one is a slow-burning courtroom drama, taking us inside the trials of two men—Wisconsin car-salvage worker Steven Avery and his nephew, 16-year-old Brendan Dassey—who are charged with the abduction, rape and murder of a photographer called Teresa Halbach in October 2005.”2 As a true crime documentary, the series relies on visual evidence, in this case the filming at the trial; police camera footage obtained during interviews with suspects; and the media trial reporting. The audience knows the filmmakers were there during the trial, acting as proxy witnesses to the legal justice system and the transparency, or lack thereof, in the criminal investigation. While the documentary eschews obvious subjective positioning, the filmmakers adopt a liberal point of view in their editing of the material filmed over the years of the trial and appeals process, inviting audiences into moral and critical engagement with the subject of the series. In this sense, Making a Murderer is in the tradition of other crime documentary films like the Thin Blue Line (director Errol Morris, 1998) which focused on the conviction of Randall Dale Adams for a murder he did not commit; the documentary offered alternative interpretations of the evidence, and one year after the film’s release the case was reviewed and Adams was released from prison.

Although Making a Murder has an open-ended narrative and a nonsensationalist approach to true crime, it is a popular documentary series and has elements from reality television in the aesthetics of attraction (Corner, 2009) that frames the 10-part series overall. For example, the spectacle of crime is prevalent in the repetition of the same footage over and over, a typical feature of crime reality television and its tendency to contain “did you see that” moments that are repeated in a loop in the program and for viral social media. There is the dramatization of true crime in the title credits, echoing the crime drama series True Detective (HBO, 2015–). The cast of characters in this series includes Avery and Dassey, their lawyers, and the law enforcement professionals. The kind of social media attention given to the legal defense team is more closely associated with reality entertainment than documentary. Dean Strang has his own fans, tumblr tributes, and swooning magazine articles: for example, the fashion magazine Elle ran a feature on “deconstructing your sexual attraction to Making a Murderer’s Dean Strang in 13 steps,” explaining how an ordinary Midwestern lawyer manages to defend justice in a corrupt legal system and win the hearts and minds of viewers.3 There are multiple spin-off series that more clearly signal reality entertainment elements, such as Case Closed: JonBenet Ramsey (2016) by branded digital channel CBS Reality about the unsolved murder of a 6-year-old child: the series was promoted as a six-hour docuthriller.

Making a Murderer manages to transform a cold case into a series that feels very present and live, where viewers can still make a difference to the outcome, in the form of signing petitions for legal appeals and amateur sleuthing. This is similar to early examples of crime reality programming where the TV citizen was invited to participate in a real-world investigation. For Making a Murderer, the digital citizen pores over the evidence, shares ideas via social media, and runs online campaigns to overturn the convictions. The filmmakers’ liberal address to viewers invites critical reflection on underfunding for indigent defense, on how working-class males can be lost in the system, on struggling with negative perceptions of class and masculinity, and on the hierarchy of values in the justice system where convictions are very difficult to overturn.

Significantly, this series is on a commercial digital distribution platform. The series gathered momentum, with half a million American viewers watching the opening episodes on Netflix just before Christmas 2015. Once word of mouth spread via reviews and social media, the series gathered 5 million viewers after two weeks, and by day 35 nearly 20 million American viewers had watched the series.4 This rolling success, building on binge watching and social media trends, makes the series a stand-out brand for true crime. Compare Making a Murder viewing figures with Netflix’s Marvel superhero series Jessica Jones, which averaged just under 9 million viewers during a 35-day viewing period. The success of this commercial true crime series is in part due to its mixing of documentary with elements of reality television. But perhaps more importantly, its success can be attributed to its ability to give a cold case a sense of liveness, enabling audiences to engage with the series in ways that connect the representations of a cold case and sentencing within the legal justice system with the present-day reinvestigation into miscarriage of justice and the future of legal appeals to overturn the convictions.

Dramatic Space of Crime Reality Television

The real-world space of crime reality television also crosses over into dramatic spaces, mixing reconstructions with real crimes. This type of programming borrows heavily from drama documentary traditions; this is a hybrid genre that uses actors, dramatized stories, and reconstructions, scripting the narrative and relying on aesthetics commonly associated with crime drama, melodrama, or horror, to tell a true life story. A drama documentary usually starts with the title sequence “this is based on a true story,” even though it is using the conventions of drama to tell this story. Paget (1998) explains in his book No Other Way to Tell It why documentary filmmakers, or writers for drama, will work together because they are unable to capture the event on camera at the time and need to reconstruct reality using fictional aesthetics. Crime reality television that crosses over into the dramatic spaces of fiction relies heavily on the use of reconstructions and interviews with real persons. Emotional identification with law enforcement and the victims’ point of view is important to this type of programming. The affective structures for dramatized true crime series highlight traditional family values, a strong sense of justice and morality, a respect for the law and legal system, and a narrative drive for resolution and/or justice for the victims and their families.

True crime has a long history of mixing representations of realism and dramatic spaces, from true crime reporting in newspapers in the 19th century to magazines devoted to true crime today. Biressi, in her book Crime, Fear and the Law in True Crime Stories (2001), highlights public fascination with the mixing of law and order, emotional journalism, and drama. Branded digital and online channels such as CBS Reality build on this historical tradition: the channel offers series like Crime Stories that contain the meticulous reconstruction of grisly crimes, or Wives with Knives, which, according to the promotion on the website “promises even more true stories that will have you on the edge of your seat.”5 The channel’s branding relies on the intergeneric space of crime reality television, crossing over from the real world into crime drama, with the emphasis perhaps more on the dramatic: “CBS Reality is as unpredictable as life. Be captivated, shocked and entertained … Home to the good, the bad and the extraordinary.”6 There is a carnivalesque discourse to such branded channels, echoing early criticism of reality television that reveled in freakshows and a spectacle of excess (see Dovey, 2000; Hill, 2015).

Real Detective (2016–), a true crime series available on Netflix (produced by Investigation Discovery), follows a reenactment and resolution narrative for each episodic crime. The series blatantly borrows from the popular crime drama True Detective (2014– HBO), an American anthology crime series created by novelist Nic Pizzolatto that garnered multiple television awards and critical acclaim. The memorable title sequence for True Detective is echoed in Real Detective’s opening, merging profiles of the detectives with the landscape, scenes of crimes, and melancholy music. Viewers are in no doubt that this true crime series has aspirations of dramatic appeal; each episode deals with a true crime, using reconstructions with recognizable actors, interspersed with interviews and voice-over from the lead detective of the murder investigation. Each crime is a story in its own right, where the personal struggles of the detectives and the intricacies of the cases are mixed with empathy for the victim and their families and a drive to see that justice is done. This kind of true crime reconstruction and dramatization has regional and international appeal as a viewer-as-cop crime format. For example, The Investigator: A British Crime Story (ITV 2015 and Netflix) is made by the production company behind Got Talent and The X Factor (SYCO). It is a formatted idea about a reinvestigation into a cold case dramatized in the series. In this example, the world space and dramatized space of crime reality television converge in an international reality format.

Television Space of Crime Reality Television

A third, and more unusual, kind of crime reality content includes the television space of programs set in specially designed studios, houses, or locations. These programs are often formats and have proven to be very successful business models in the development of reality television for cross media content. This type of series is usually described as entertainment to signal the reliance on production, where a certain amount of scripting and producer intervention will inevitably take place. The intergeneric space of these series and formats set in created-for-television environments usually contain participants as contestants who are both performing as themselves and competing in a reality contest. This is reality television as a social experiment, often imagining what might happen and then casting, filming, and editing so that viewers can see what did happen in this created-for-television show. Although these kinds of crime rely on imaginative storytelling and entertainment aesthetics, the series usually makes claims to reality, using real detectives or following real procedures in a courtroom. Somewhat similar to role play, or crime investigation scenarios, real law enforcement personnel will perform as if this were a live investigation, even though ordinary people or actors are involved in the making of the series.

An example of the television space of crime reality is Hunted (2015–, Endemol Shine), an entertainment format that promotes itself as “a real-life thriller where 14 ordinary people go on the run from a team of expert hunters.”7 The prize for living off the grid is 100,000 pounds. The civilian contestants, called fugitives, have 28 days to avoid capture by former police and intelligence officers, who have at their disposal state tracking methods, including monitoring phones and social media, house searches, and open-source intelligence. The contestants represent people working in schools, hospitals, care professions, and business, IT, and public relations sectors. The television space of this crime reality format is clearly signaled to viewers through the competition for prize money, as well as the acknowledgment that surveillance footage has been replicated for the show, thus filming certain segments specifically to enhance the contestant’s storyline. That being said, a member of the film crew follows each contestant, using hand-held camera work and creating a feeling of being there during the chase. The Hunters, as they are called, involve a team of 30 specialists led by the former Head of Counter Terrorism for the City of London Police who role-plays tracking fugitives, interviewing family members, tracing credit card purchases, and offering cash rewards to members of the public in media campaigns. This last part connects the series to real life in the form of interactive elements, much like official social media, where audience and public are given the impression that they can make a difference to the outcome of the series.

Hunted could have followed the narrative framing of crime reality television that espouses traditional values of law and order, but the politics of fear that runs through the narrative is designed to tap into millennials, people born after 1980 and the first generation to come of age in the new millennium, who are living with global neoliberalism, digital surveillance, and the rise of aggressive populism. The show is firmly on the side of the civilians:

[T]he underlying message was that technology is the authorities’ best friend. While we all know that devices, such as phones, iPads or laptops, can give away our location instantly, much creepier was how, along with social media, they can be plundered for clues to our history, vulnerabilities and patterns of behaviour that not only leave a trail but can be analysed and used against us.8

The series uses the imaginative reworking of crime, setting up a nightmare scenario where citizens, not criminals, are hunted by the state. Hunted touches on pre-crime storytelling, a term used by the science fiction novelist Phillip K. Dick to describe an authoritarian state’s surveillance of citizens and their potential crimes of the future. Contemporary intelligence-gathering techniques now include pre-crime elements, such as predictive policing or algorithmic power. According to McCulloch and Wilson (2016), pre-crime encompasses coercive state interventions that target specific groups thought to be susceptible to crimes in the future: Hunted plays with the idea of pre-crime through the representation of state surveillance in an imaginary and entertainment setting.

The performance of the format in countries with rather flexible privacy laws is striking. Hunted in the U.K. was first shown in September 2015 on the public service and commercial hybrid broadcaster Channel 4. The series on average attracted 2.2 million viewers, with many younger viewers aged 16–34, delivering a peak market share of 23% for these millennials, which is a 188% increase on Channel 4’s usual market share in that age range. Market shares are often more important than total average ratings as it tells a broadcaster how well their show is doing on their own channel, with a target audience, and in relation to competition on other channels at the same time. Of those 2.2 million viewers, there was a higher than average number of younger males and viewers in the middle and upper social class. By the time the second season aired in September 2017, again averaging 2.2 million viewers overall, the show established a brand for edgy crime reality television for anxious millennials who worry about privacy in a surveillance culture and wonder how to live off the grid, or what to do to resist state and Silicon Valley-led surveillance.9

An American version of Hunted aired in January 2017 on the CBS network, replacing competitive reality format Survival in the prime-time slot. Its premiere, scheduled after the AFC (American Football Conference) Championship, attracted 17.6 million viewers. This unusually high ratings performance ensured Hunted made a big impression in the commercial television market and garnered broader audiences. At the time of writing, the series attracted adults aged 18–49, averaging around 7 million consolidated viewers (viewers watching live and on catch-up services). The format has also done rather well in Denmark (DR3, 2016–), attracting a peak audience of 130,000 viewers, with a 7% market share and making the number one slot for the highest rated show on DR3 for that year. Hunted has also been successful in The Netherlands (NPO3, 2016–), with an average audience of nearly 700,000 viewers and a 9% market share, in particular performing well with younger adults (aged 13–34) making up around 40% of its overall audience. But other international versions of the format performed less well. In Russia, for example, Hunted/Oxota (WeiT Media, 2016) failed to catch the eye of young millennials already living under the shadow of an authoritarian regime. And in Germany, it would be impossible to adopt the format under its present privacy laws.10 There are currently plans to make the series in China. Overall, as a global format, Hunted has made its mark; it ranked as the number one nonscripted series premiere in the United States since the X Factor from 2011. This suggests that reality talent formats can be outperformed by crime reality formats, an interesting development for the future of formatted crime entertainment. The same production company Shine has developed an entertainment format The Trial (Channel 4, 2017–), this time creating an imaginary crime that is taken to trial with real judges, jury, and legal and law and order personnel role-playing the parts in the justice system.

Values and Crime Reality Television

A generic analysis of crime reality television also needs to address the values associated with representing crime, including the production values in the craft and creative industries, economic values in the business of television, and moral, public and cultural values (Bolin, 2011). This is where further research on issues of knowledge and power, gender representation, race and ethnicity, and social class, among others, need to be considered alongside production and reception contexts. A Companion to Reality Television (Ouellette, 2014) maps some of the further research that has been done, and that still needs doing, on the social, political, and cultural values, and value judgments of crime reality television. In a section on “dilemmas of visibility,” the politics of representation for men and women, people of color, the working class, gays, lesbians, transgenders, and transsexuals is considered by various scholars, critiquing reality television’s progressive claims to represent ordinary people and instead suggesting that the genre has adopted postracial and postfeminist positions. There is an assumption that “equality has been achieved and anyone can succeed, regardless of gender or race” (Ouellette, 2014, p. 6). The unequal power dynamics within the production of reality television suggests that oppressed groups are further marginalized and that rather than being a neutral producer of representations, the genre “plays a role in policing” double standards, norms, and bodies (Ouellette, 2014, p. 6).

For example, Palmer (2014, p. 251) focuses on the use of surveillance in crime reality television and on how this “enframes debates about the body in society.” He draws on the work by Andrejevic (2004) on the social acceptance of surveillance, including the production of reality television and the free labor of audiences in contributing to surveillance culture; for Palmer “surveillance weaves its way through reality television, providing its own evidence of difference and helping to preserve the distance between viewers and its subjects” (p. 251). In the case of Making a Murderer, evidence of difference can be seen in the working-class masculinity represented in the series, in particular the repetitive location shots of the junk yard where the Avery family live, which is both the site of the crime and a reminder of the framing of class in representations of lifestyles. Crime reality television often replicates dominant discourses, thus playing a role in policing double standards and norms for gender, ethnicity, and social class (Squires, 2014).

In relation to gender, Jermyn critiques fears about the influence of crime reality television on so-called vulnerable viewers (women, working class people, young viewers); “the paternalistic and conservative impulses behind this critique” needs to be carefully scrutinized when we consider actual audiences for these programs (2007, p. 15) As Jermyn notes, assumptions about the female viewer as vulnerable to fear of crime and “even hysterical in her engagement” (2007, p. 18) need to be challenged by audience research. She argues that women like to watch real crime as a strategy for managing their fears, showing “a reconfiguration of their engagement with the genre that endows them with agency rather than vulnerability” (p. 18).

In a national survey of a representative sample of 4516 respondents in the U.K., public attitudes to crime reality programming supported Jermyn’s argument that viewers of crime were critically engaged with this form of popular culture (Hill, 2007).11 Around a third of the sample watched crime reality programming, and there was a slight gender, age and social class differentiation across this group, indicating that crime programming was more popular with younger, female, and working-class viewers. Most respondents in the sample classified crime reality television as a mixture of information and entertainment (38%); 24% thought it was pure entertainment. Many were critical of the entertainment focus of crime, wanting more realism and less drama; for example, 49% claimed there was accurate information in crime reality programming, but 70% said this was important to them. Of the 70% who thought accurate information was important, 74% were female (65% male), 76% were aged 16–24 (62% aged 65+), and 68% were working class (67% middle and upper class). The survey results indicated that women, working-class, and younger viewers were as critically engaged as men, middle- and upper-class, and older viewers.

In terms of the framing of values for crime reality television, two discourses are dominant in academic writings. Lunt (2014) sums up the two perspectives as situated in different value positions about popular culture. One position comes from neo-Foucauldian theories of governmentality, drawing on the influential work of French theorist Michel Foucault and his ideas regarding power and surveillance by state institutions. In this view of crime reality television, the “contours of modernity” are a neoliberal project, and critiques of neoliberalism and reality television highlight how the media “construct, constrain and shape conduct” (Lunt, 2014, pp. 512–513). Given the historical background of crime reality television in 1980s Great Britain and America, this critical approach has been dominant in writings within this genre. Lunt notes how the politics of Thatcher and Reagan became “a harbinger of a broader political ideology of neoliberalism” and academic writings criticized the “conditions for the neoliberal political subject in which individualism is expressed through mutual competition in an enterprise culture” (Lunt, 2014, pp. 512–513). The citizen viewer became inextricably caught in a “system of subtle control beyond the state such that conformity resulted in the game of life rather than through adherence to authority and traditional norms of conduct” (Lunt, 2014, p. 513). Work by Palmer (2003), Andrejevic (2004), and Couldry (2010), among others, critiques the neoliberal project in popular culture, calling for resistance to this symbolic power over citizens, viewers, and users.

Another position comes from “liberal theories of late modernity in which new agencies were identified as potential rationalization of the lifeworld or as part of a new reflexive agency reflecting life political movements” (Lunt, 2014, p. 512). This alternative interpretation of reality television draws on the writings of sociologist Anthony Giddens (1991) on late modernity and the reflexive project of the self, and the later writings of Habermas (1996) in which earlier thinking on political agency and public life is repositioned in relation to progressive rationality in everyday life. In this work, truth, aesthetics, and morals form a normative basis for liberal society; institutions associated with science and the law encompass spheres of truth that are dispersed into society, culture and everyday life. For Lunt (2014), reality television can play a role in reflection and critical engagement, and in the production of knowledge about morality, or the law, based on experience. Such a reading of reality television disrupts a neo-Foucauldian interpretation of crime, offering an alternative perspective that places more agency with audiences and offers a means for popular culture to have public value in everyday life.

The public value of crime reality television remains open to interpretation. There are certainly examples of commercial crime reality television that seem to revel in sensational surveillance footage and gruesome reenactments of crimes, offering a neo-Foucauldian reading of representations of crime where citizens are disciplined and unequal power relations are reproduced, especially around oppressed groups. In a highly commercial television environment such as that in the United States, this critical analysis of crime reality television is situated in the political economics of the television industry, where public service broadcasting is a minor player in the broadcasting system. There are also examples of crime reality television that support a late Habermasian reading of representations of crime where citizens are encouraged to reflect, critically engage, and in some cases do something about injustice in society. Kraidy and Sender (2011), in their book on the politics of reality television from a global perspective, suggest that in Arab countries there is a political and public value in the reflection and debate that arises from popular culture. Some of the most high-profile examples of crime reality television at the moment suggest the public value of popular culture from the commercial sector, in particular subscription video on demand distribution platforms, including television and podcasts containing cross media content. There is not only public but economic value in crime reality television attuned to a reflexive agency in everyday life. Crime entertainment formats such as Hunted, or The Trial, use the imaginative spaces of storytelling to reflect and engage with surveillance culture, to explore tactics for living off the grid, and to critique transparency and justice in liberal democracies. Without wanting to overstate the value of crime reality television to audiences and publics—it is after all a predominantly entertainment and commercial enterprise—documentary and entertainment about crime have a role to play in inviting audiences to critically engage with truth claims, the use of evidence in law and order and legal arenas, the power dynamics of surveillance culture, and the broader moral and political issues of living in late modern societies.

Conclusion: Crime Waves

Crime offers a significant origin story to reality entertainment. It shows a public service and commercial interest in narratives about crime for cross media content. From the 1980s onward, crime reality television has tapped into enduring narratives such as the appeal to the TV citizen, surveillance culture, the spectacle of chase, capture, and containment, emotional engagement with law enforcement professionals, traditional family values, duty, and authority, all framed within a broader situated context of morality, the law, and politics.

Crime reality television can be contextualized in the spaces within which it is distributed, produced, and engaged with by audiences and publics. The intergeneric space of crime reality television works across the real-world space of crime and its connections with ongoing investigations, the dramatic spaces of crime reconstructions, and the television spaces of crime entertainment formats that create competition and imaginary scenarios of crime and the law. Despite the global reach of talent shows, or docusoaps about celebrities, crime continues to be a rich site of analysis for understanding the mixing of facts and entertainment, the politics of representation, and the controversial value of popular culture in reflexive late modernity. Above all, the intergeneric space of reality television highlights how significant it is that crime entertainment connects with the real world, in one way or another. The sense of liveness and the relevance of the representations of crime with social issues happening now is a crucial element in the enduring popularity of crime. Current developments in commercial and public service true crime series, podcasts, and international formats suggest that crime is reinventing itself as a popular form, with cultural resonance for contemporary everyday life.

Crimewatch U.K.

Official BBC website.


For American version see CBS website and related official social media, and for the British version see Channel 4 website and related official social media.

Information and clips for the global format Hunted are available on the Endemol Shine website.

Journalism About True Crime

Fieldstadt, E. (2016). New Crop of True Crime Shows Seduces Audiences, Compels Them to Dig. CBS News: April 16, 2016. Available at

Lawson, M. (2016). How’s that for true detective? The ex-cop taking over crime TV. The Guardian July 13, 2016. Available at this resource:

Further Reading

Gray, C., & Bond-Maupin, L. (1993). Fear and loathing on reality television. Sociological Inquiry, 63, 305–317.Find this resource:

Fishman, M., & Cavender, G. (Eds.) (1998). Entertaining crime: Television reality programs: Social problems and social issues. New York: Aldine de Gruyter.Find this resource:

Hill, A. (2000). Crime and crisis: British reality TV in action. In E. Buscombe (Ed.), British television: A reader. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Find this resource:

Hill, A. (2015). Reality TV: Key ideas. London: Routledge.Find this resource:

Jermyn, D. (2007). Crime watching: Investigating real crime TV. London: I. B. Taurus.Find this resource:

Ouellette, L. (Ed.). (2014). A companion to reality television. New York: Wiley Blackwell.Find this resource:


Andrejevic, M. (2004). Reality TV: The work of being watched. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield.Find this resource:

Bignell, J. (2005). Big Brother: Reality TV in the twenty-first century. Basingstoke, U.K.: Palgrave Macmillan.Find this resource:

Biressi, A. (2001). Crime, fear and the law in true crime stories. Basingstoke, U.K.: Palgrave Macmillan.Find this resource:

Biressi, A., & Nunn, H. (2005). Reality TV. London: Wallflower Press.Find this resource:

Bolin, G. (2011). Value and the media: Cultural production and consumption in digital markets. London: Ashgate.Find this resource:

Brants, K. (1998). Who’s afraid of infotainment. European Journal of Communication, 13(3), 315–335.Find this resource:

Cavender, G., & Bond-Maupin, L. (1993). Fear and loathing on reality television, Sociological Inquiry, 63, 305–317.Find this resource:

Corner, J. (2009). Performing the real: Documentary diversions (with afterword). In S. Murray & L. Ouellette (Eds.), Reality TV: Remaking television culture (pp. 44–64). New York: New York University Press.Find this resource:

Couldry, N. (2010). Why voice matters. London: SAGE.Find this resource:

Dovey, J. (2000). Freakshows: First person media and factual TV. London: Pluto.Find this resource:

Fishman, M., & Cavender, G. (Eds.). (1998). Entertaining crime: Television reality programs: Social problems and social issues. New York: Aldine de Gruyter.Find this resource:

Giddens, A. (1991). Modernity and self-identity: Self and society in the late modern age. Cambridge, U.K.: Polity.Find this resource:

Glynn, K. (2000). Tabloid culture: Trash taste, popular power and the transformation of television. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.Find this resource:

Habermas, J. (1996). Between facts and the norms: Contributions to a discourse theory of law and democracy. Cambridge, U.K.: Polity.Find this resource:

Hall, S. (1983). The great moving right show. In S. Hall & M. Jacques (Eds.), The politics of Thatcherism (pp. 19–39). London: Lawrence & Wishart.Find this resource:

Hill, A. (2000). Crime and crisis: British reality TV in action. In E. Buscombe (Ed.), British television: A reader. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Find this resource:

Hill, A. (2005). Reality TV: Audiences and popular factual television. London: Routledge.Find this resource:

Hill, A. (2007). Restyling factual TV: Audiences and news, documentary and reality genres. London: Routledge.Find this resource:

Hill, A. (2015). Reality TV: Key ideas. London: Routledge.Find this resource:

Holmes, S., & Jermyn, D. (2003). Understanding reality television. London: Routledge.Find this resource:

Jermyn, D. (2007). Crime watching: Investigating real crime TV. London: I. B. Taurus.Find this resource:

Kavka, M. (2012). Reality TV. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.Find this resource:

Kilborn, R. (1994). “How real can you get?”: Recent developments in “reality” television. European Journal of Communication, 9, 421–439.Find this resource:

Kilborn, R. (2003). Staging the real: Factual TV programming in the age of Big Brother. Manchester, U.K.: Manchester University Press.Find this resource:

Kraidy, M., & Sender, K. (Eds.). (2011). The politics of reality television: Global perspectives. London: Routledge.Find this resource:

Langer, J. (1998) Tabloid television: Popular journalism and the “other” news. London: Routledge.Find this resource:

Lunt, P. (2014). Reality television, public service and public life: A critical theory perspective. In L. Ouellette (Ed.), A companion to reality television (pp. 501–515). New York: Wiley Blackwell.Find this resource:

McCulloch, J., & Wilson, D. (2016). Pre-crime: Preemption, precaution and the future. London: Routledge.Find this resource:

Oren, T., & Shahaf, S. (2012). Global television formats. New York: Routledge.Find this resource:

Ouellette, L. (Ed.). (2014). A companion to reality television. New York: Wiley Blackwell.Find this resource:

Paget, D. (1998). No other way to tell it. Manchester, U.K.: Manchester University Press.Find this resource:

Palmer, G. (2003) Discipline and liberty: Television and governance. Manchester, U.K.: Manchester University Press.Find this resource:

Palmer, G. (2014). The wild bunch: Men, labor, and reality television. In L. Ouellette (Ed.), A companion to reality television (pp. 247–263). New York: Wiley Blackwell.Find this resource:

Raphael, C. (1997, 2009). The Political Economic Origins of Reali-TV. In S. Murray & L. Ouellette (Eds.), Reality TV: Remaking Television Culture (pp. 123–140). New York: New York University Press.Find this resource:

Rath, C.-D. (1985). The invisible network: Television as an institution in everyday life. In P. Drummond & R. Paterson (Eds.), Television in transition (pp. 199–204). London: British Film Institute.Find this resource:

Squires, C. (2014). The conundrum of race and reality television. In L. Ouellette (Ed.), A Companion to reality television (pp. 264–282). New York: Wiley Blackwell.Find this resource:


(1.) See Daily Mail, May 12, 2016, Natalie Corner, website

(2.) See The Telegraph, January 28, 2016.

(3.) Diana Bruk, January 4, 2016, Elle magazine.

(7.) See official Channel 4 website.

(8.) See Gerard O’Donovan, the Telegraph, September 10, 2015.

(9.) All ratings are taken from the Broadcasters Audience Research Board and provided by Endemol Shine and the Audience Research and Insights group for an internal document for the author.

(10.) All ratings provided by Endemol Shine, compiled across official ratings data for America (Neilsen), The Netherlands (Stichting KijkOnderzoek), and Denmark (Kantar Media), in an internal document for the author.

(11.) All statistics in this section on crime reality programming audience viewing patterns and attitudes are taken from an original survey conducted in 2003, in collaboration with the author and IPSOS RSL, who managed the national survey with the BARB sample of respondents, an unweighted sample of 4516. The statistics are compiled from the internal reports produced for the author. Some of the results are available in Hill (2007) for the full study.