On March 11, nearly two weeks before New York issued an order forcing all non-essential workers to stay home, CBS News shut down its New York office after two employees tested positive for the novel coronavirus. Judy Tygard, the executive producer for 48 Hours, likened the news to “your house being threatened by a wildfire.”
“Everyone was grabbing their coats and laptops, getting toothpaste from the bathroom,” she told The Daily Beast. Meanwhile, the true crime show’s editors were at their desks, downloading footage from their servers to portable hard drives they could edit remotely at home.
“We thought we’d be out for a week or so, then everything would be back to normal,” Tygard said. “But our editors had the presence of mind to get the media they needed to finish their projects.”
Suffice to say, that was a smart decision. Weeks later, Americans remain sheltering in place at home, living in fear of a silent, invisible killer virus. Still, they cannot get enough of the murders broadcast on true crime TV shows.
According to Nielsen data, NBC’s Dateline averaged 4.91 million total viewers from March 23 to April 5, up 9 percent year-over-year. The March 28 episode of CBS’ 48 Hours, “Lizzie Borden Took An Axe,” had 3.42 million viewers, up 35 percent from the previous week. That’s a 30-percent increase in viewers from the same night the year before.
A representative for the network added that the figure does not account for the “roughly 800,000 additional viewers” who tune in via DVR or video-on-demand a week after the air date.
Investigation Discovery, a channel known for its round-the-clock true crime shows, could not provide its full March statistics by press time. Still, a representative noted that for the first quarter of 2020, the network was the No. 1 ad-supported cable network for women age 25 to 54 in a total day, and the No. 9 network for women in primetime.
“People are dying [of coronavirus], so people aren’t in the mood to watch Sound of Music,” Rebecca Reisner, who runs the blog Forensic Files Now, which covers cases spotlighted in the long-running docuseries. “These are serious times. It just seems appropriate to watch this stuff when things are grim.”
Reisner noted that traffic on her site has been up “ten to twenty percent” since the pandemic began. She thinks that might be because the show’s narration, provided by the late, honey-voiced announcer Peter Thomas, comes off as calming.
“He has this reassuring voice, so if you’re watching Forensic Files at a time like this, you’re watching something serious, but at the same time, you’re hearing about it from this avuncular voice. It’s comforting in a way,” she said.
Tygard has been thinking a lot about how her show might provide solace to viewers self-isolating. “If you take the wide shot about what true crime stories are, there’s this epic battle between good and evil,” she said. “Right now, we’re facing this big monster out there that nobody can see, we don’t know when it’s going to strike, it’s just out there lurking. So true crime, I think, eases that anxiety. Our monsters have faces, they have names.”
And, crucially, these monsters are usually punished. Though over 185,000 homicide cases were unsolved between 1980 and 2008, newsmagazines shows tend to focus on the ones with resolution.
“We know our viewers love when we can tie up loose ends,” Tygard said. “What’s so satisfying about a true crime story is when the monsters are locked up at the end of the day. The good guys, the cops, the detectives, the first responders, the prosecutors, and the family members have the satisfaction of knowing they put this bad guy, or girl, away.”
Kevin Bennett, the group EVP of programming and general manager for Investigation Discovery, thinks such closure can give viewers a little bit of “hope,” and a reminder that our fraught governmental system (sometimes) works.
“What’s going on right now is really about the extremism of human nature,” Bennett said. “You’re seeing so many good stories about heroes on the frontline, and the squabbles in politics and things like that. It’s both sides of human nature. That’s what true crime is, as well.”
There have been changes to networks’ lineup during quarantine. Bennett said ID tries to put out content that is “more recognizable” to the general public, not just diehards, like In Pursuit with John Walsh, 20/20, and 48 Hours.
“Never in my life did I think I would adjust an air schedule for a pandemic,” Tygard said. “But here we are.” Over the past few weeks, she’s swapped in stories that “scratch the true crime itch” while still keeping stressed viewers “an arms-length distance” from extreme horror or violence.
The Lizzie Borden episode featured a case that occurred in 1892, which makes it more of, in Tygard’s words, a “historical exploration.” Another episode, “Reuschel vs. Reuschel,” spotlights an attempted murder in Florida, where “everyone survived.” This week will cover the living victims of Ted Bundy, where women experienced something “fighting and awful,” but still alive to tell the tale.
“We’re reminding people that we will go back to life as it once was,” Erin Moriarty, a 48 Hours correspondent, said. “Courts will open again, there will be these cases again. It distracts us a bit. Otherwise, we hear the [ambulance] sirens everyday, the number [of coronavirus cases] are higher, there are so many unknowns. At least on our show, it’s something you can count on.”
Moriarty is currently holed up in her New York apartment, which means her closet has become an ad hoc recording studio. “I can hardly wait to go back to the field, where you spent time with a prosecutor and give him or her a really hard time because of lack of evidence, or you talk about the amazing case they built against someone that no one thought would get caught,” she said. “I miss that desperately.”
“This was the most vulnerable and private thing I could ever speak about in my life”
Jennifer D. Laws is a writer and web developer who lives in Brooklyn and never misses an episode of Dateline or 20/20. “It’s the realest stuff on TV besides the news,” Laws, 35, said. “It’s true stories of average people living their lives, and then a certain thing happens and it goes from sugar to shit.”
It also reminds her of the Friday nights in her childhood, spent watching the episodes with her mother. “I’ll have my popcorn, sit up and watch it,” Laws said. “It was a bonding thing with my mother. She used the stories to say, ‘‘This is why you shouldn’t trust people,’ or ‘This is why you listen to your mother.’”
Now, Laws calls her mother after she watches the show for “recaps.” “We talk about it,” she said. “It’s so weird and so dark. But somehow, we find a semblance of wow, this could have been me. If I hadn’t dealt with this guy, or if I didn’t cut off my friend who gave me bad vibes, it could have been a horror story. It makes you think of your own life. Literally one wrong move could lead you to the same predicament.”
Caroline Reuschel, a 32-year-old New Yorker, knows that all too well. The stylist used to be a fan of true crime shows. “It did seem like an escape, even for an hour, from my average, daily life.” She never imagined one day she would end up on one.
Last week, 48 Hours premiered “Reuschel vs. Reuschel,” an episode about Caroline’s father, Mike, a man sentenced to 30 years in prison for the attempted first-degree murder of his wife, Sue. According to prosecutors, Mike tried to kill his second wife, Caroline’s stepmother, rather than risk losing his fortune in a pricey divorce.
Mike pleaded not guilty and maintained his innocence, insisting he acted in self-defense. Caroline appeared on 48 Hours to defend her father, who she says was a battered husband. (Sue had been arrested and charged for domestic assault against Mike two years before her attack, but he declined to press charges at the time.)
“This wasn’t easy for me to talk about,” Caroline said. “This was the most vulnerable and private thing I could ever speak about in my life. I didn’t do this because I wanted to. People don’t do this for attention. People do this because someone was wronged.”
Caroline was interviewed over the course of two eight-hour days, which took place during and after the trial. She says everyone involved in production was “professional” and gave her the chance to tell “exactly everything I knew, felt, and experienced in a very comfortable environment.”
Caroline doesn’t want to watch the episode, ever. It’s too painful to relive. She said she’s been on the receiving end of “cyberbullying,” with some viewers saying “really, really hurtful things” about her appearance. Since part of the show covered her wedding, which went $150,000 over budget, Caroline says she’s been called “a brat” and “ugly” online.
“This is an investigative journalism program, and for people to mistake that as reality entertainment was the most upsetting,” she said. “I don’t know if the backlash that I received is normal, or because people were bored at home [in quarantine] watching this.”
Either way, she doesn’t fault the show. “I have nothing against anyone who watched it,” she said. “Everything on television is entertainment. But I’ve learned to take everything with a very, very large, or a million, grains of salts.”
True crime shows have been criticized for a myriad of reasons. The victims tend to be white. They’re often women. Stories are plucked from the suburbs, conjuring the worst fears of middle American families. Cops are presented almost always as good guys, despite the country’s epidemic of police brutality.
Still, fans cannot get enough. Even M. Deaneé Johnson, the chief program officer for the National Center for Victims of Crime, calls herself a “true crime buff.” These shows are her guilty pleasure, though she understands the trickiness of turning someone's tragedy into primetime TV.
She concedes not all of the shows are problematic, especially if episodes include the voice of a victim. That’s not always the case. “Most often these stories are focused on the offender,” Johnson said. “We don’t always give the victim the opportunity to tell their side of the story.”
“My father probably killed more people, there is no way around that fact”
Diane Kloepfer, 50, is the daughter of Terry Peder Rasmussen, a murderer who died in prison in 2010. She grew up without knowing him; her mother left Rasmussen when Kloepfer was 5 years old. In 2017, police confirmed that Rasmussen was the perpetrator behind the infamous Bear Brook murders, which went unsolved for 34 years.
The bodies of an adult woman and three young girls were found inside a 55-gallon drum placed in a state park in Allenstown, New Hampshire. The victims were identified as Marlyse Elizabeth Honeychurch, and her two daughters, Marie Vaughn and Sarah McWaters.
The final body, an unidentified child between the ages of 2 and 4, has yet to be named, but DNA has identified her as Rasmussen’s daughter. That means she was Kloepfer’s half-sister.
“It is a huge tragedy,” Kloepfer said. “The answers are out there, just the right person has to spit in the tube, submit their DNA. I know she’s my half-sister, but there’s a whole bigger story behind that. Her family is missing someone, and she needs her identity back.”
The mystery is enough to make Kloepfer, a former police dispatcher, give up her much-desired privacy to speak out on shows like 20/20. “My father probably killed more people, there is no way around that fact,” she said. “How can I ever make amends? If people want me to participate [in shows], I have to spell it out very clearly, it’s because I want [victims] identified.”
Before learning of her father’s crimes, Kloepfer used to watch true crime. “When this came [out], I stopped,” she said. “I just couldn’t. I tried, and I couldn’t. I was like, ‘Yeah, no. Not today. That’s enough for me now.’”
Morley Swingle is an assistant prosecuting attorney in Boone County, Missouri. He’s worked as both a state and federal prosecutor for the past 25 years, and has appeared on The Oprah Winfrey Show, Dateline, and Forensic Files—twice. He will only agree to filming if a victim’s family approves.
“I do think these shows serve a purpose other than salaciousness,” Swingle said. “They show that the justice system can work. I think that’s a positive that comes out of these shows. I’m a true believer in the jury system. It’s not perfect, but I think it’s good for the public to see that in most cases, the court system does produce justice. That’s why I cooperate, other than just the ego of seeing yourself on TV.”
But, of course, the wheels of justice turn slowly. “The one thing the public doesn’t realize is when a police officer or prosecutor gets asked to cooperate with the show, it’s usually years after” Swingle explained.
Last year, he agreed to be on an Investigation Discovery show spotlighting a murder that occurred in 1991. “I said I would do it, so I had to track down the transcript of that trial and read it cover to cover—more than 1,000 pages—reread police reports, look at all the photos again, get all the basic facts back in my head. It was two days of a full weekend to prepare for that interview, so it is a lot of work,” Swingle said.
The prosecutor does fear that the shows might “educate” wannabe criminals. “You watch enough of those shows, and you realize how not to leave DNA, not to carry your cell phone,” Swingle said. “A criminal can do a better job at plotting the perfect murder.”
With quarantine forcing more families to spend time together—for better or worse—that’s become a common joke among 48 Hours viewers. “People send us all the time notes like, ‘If I’m quarantined for my wife and I end up dead, it wasn’t the virus,’” Tygard, the executive producer, joked. “Maybe there are some people that are watching this show, and I hope they’re not taking notes.”