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.