COMPANY TOWN

Investigation Discovery becomes top cable channel for women with true crime all the time

It's a grim lineup. Husbands killing wives, wives stabbing husbands, murderous lovers, along with stalkers, kidnappers and serial killers past and present.

Brenda Boyd of Austin, Texas, can't get enough of it. She's a self-proclaimed "ID addict," referring to the hard-core fans of mystery and crime cable network Investigation Discovery.

"It's impossible to shut off," said the 38-year-old administrator for the Texas Department of Transportation who runs an "I Love ID TV" Facebook page. "In one way or another you can relate to it — you had that crazy boyfriend at one time, or you had somebody who was stalking you or that weird family member." 

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Boyd is not alone. Music superstars Lady Gaga and Nicki Minaj and tennis champion Serena Williams have said they're hooked on ID's documentary-style re-creations of true crime stories.

ID finished the fourth quarter of 2015 as the most-watched ad-supported cable network among women ages 25 to 54, according to Nielsen data. In prime time, the channel had an average of 897,000 viewers overall, up 10% from 2014. It's the only cable network launched in the last 10 years to land among 20 top-rated channels — finishing 18th in 2015 — and it may be the last.

ID's rise comes at a time when the maturing cable TV business is in a downward trend. Many established cable channels are seeing their audiences erode as viewers spend more time watching video through online streaming services. Media stocks were pummeled last year as more households opted out of cable and satellite TV subscriptions.

ID parent Discovery Communications, which also owns Discovery Channel, TLC, Animal Planet and the Oprah Winfrey Network, was among those hard hit. Discovery's stock dropped about 20% in 2015 and faces the same challenges as the rest of the industry going forward.

But ID's popularity is helping to deliver a much-needed boost to Discovery because cable channels are likely to need passionate fans if they are going to survive in the shifting media landscape, in which viewers are more value-conscious and demanding.

Henry Schleiff, group president of Investigation Discovery, American Heroes Channel and Destination America, said ID has thrived because its well-defined niche of true crime — popular on TV since Jack Webb first mined the LAPD files in the 1950s — gives viewers what they want on a consistent basis.

"This is the one network that has played this programming 24 hours [a day] seven days a week," he said during a recent interview in his midtown Manhattan office, where a framed cartoon on a wall shows a vulture saying "Love your work" to the scythe-wielding Death. "This is all we do."

Discovery Communications doesn't break out the earnings for its individual channels. But Schleiff said revenue for ID doubled by 2012 when it shifted to full-time true crime and has more than doubled again since. The channel has grown internationally as well, reaching 163 markets around the world.

The channel taps into the public's growing fascination with crime stories while defying the current trend toward complex serialized storytelling popularized in many critically acclaimed dramas.

HBO's documentary "The Jinx" told the story of murder suspect Robert Durst over six episodes. The wildly popular first edition of the NPR audio podcast "Serial" meticulously recounted the story of a Maryland teenager convicted of murdering his girlfriend over 15 parts.

Netflix experienced a lot of binge-watching over the holiday season with "Making a Murderer," a 10-hour documentary series about Steven Avery, the Wisconsin man wrongly convicted of sexual assault and now serving a life sentence for a murder he says he did not commit.

Even Discovery Channel is entering the fray with its upcoming multi-part series "Killing Fields," which follows an unsolved Louisiana murder case from 1997.

But ID chooses to keep it simple, with criminal investigations boiled down to their just-the-facts-ma'am essence and mixed with a generous helping of emotional recollections of the victims. Every case depicted has been adjudicated and resolution comes at the end of an hour show. When one investigation ends, another begins.

Schleiff said ID serves an audience that still wants "predictability" when they turn on a favorite channel, especially working women who are also raising families.

"Their leisure time is so limited that they think of this as a guilty pleasure," he said. "The shows have the entertainment quality of a soap opera with some payoff on how to avoid a crime or an experience. And the shows can be watched with a significant other."

In the current era when TV viewers can watch what they want when they want it, ID fans are a throwback. When they turn the channel on, they leave it on. ID viewers watch an average of 54 continuous minutes a day, the most of any broadcast or cable network in the women 25-to-54 age group, Nielsen says.

Noelle Daidone, 40, a northern New Jersey fan, can vouch for ID's allure. "My DVR is filled with ID shows," Daidone said. "But when I'm home, even if I'm not totally focused on programs, I do have it on while cleaning and going about my day."

ID may also be benefiting from the country's mood. Violent crime has been on the decline in the U.S. since the 1980s. But stories unambiguously grounded in law and order provide an escape for viewers anxious about the threat from terrorism in a world that can seem out of control.

"In an era when fear is prevalent, having identifiable good guys and bad guys is a comfortable thing," said Susan Zirinsky, senior executive producer of the long-running CBS crime-and-justice newsmagazine "48 Hours." "There is a need for people to be able to feel secure and herald a hero."

Updated editions of "48 Hours" and crime-oriented episodes of other network newsmagazines are a staple of ID's program lineup. It's currently scoring strong ratings with Barbara Walters' archive of interviews with sensational criminals such as the Menendez brothers and Mark David Chapman. John Lennon's assassin.

The channel does its own original investigative shows such as "Deadline: Crime," hosted by NBC News anchor Tamron Hall; "On the Case With Paula Zahn"; and "Killer Instinct," in which former "Dateline NBC" correspondent and online predator catcher Chris Hansen profiles serials murderers.

Many of ID's original series use actors doing scripted reenactments of criminal cases and have attention-grabbing titles ("Wives With Knives," "Who the Bleep Did I Marry?" "A Stranger in My Home," "Your Worst Nightmare," "Fear Thy Neighbor"). One series, "A Crime to Remember," dramatizes cases from the 1950s and '60s and has the look of a homicidal "Mad Men."

ID's highest-rated show is "Homicide Hunter: Lt. Joe Kenda," featuring the case files of a laconic retired Colorado Springs, Colo., detective who solved nearly 400 murders in his career, drawing 1.6 million viewers on average.

Most of the series have the participation of people personally connected to the victims.

"I've referred to it as a club that no one wants to be a member of," said Hall, whose sister was murdered in a case that was never solved. "When we ask these people to come on 'Deadline: Crime' to tell their story, I've had very few say no. It's a part of their feeling of justice. It's a part of validating that 'This person was a part of my life, was here, and I want you to know what happened to them.'"

ID premieres 650 hours of programming a year and with crime being a renewable resource, there is no shortage of material for new shows.

On Schleiff's desk is a framed photo of him standing with disgraced comedian Bill Cosby, taken decades before sexual assault allegations would lead to the comedian's recent arrest.

The executive looks at it and suggests that the story would make a compelling ID series.

Twitter: @SteveBattaglio

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times
A version of this article appeared in print on January 05, 2016, in the Business section of the Los Angeles Times with the headline "COMPANY TOWN - True crime all the time - Investigation Discovery becomes a top cable channel with its lineup of stalkers and killers" — Today's paperToday's paper | Subscribe
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