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TikTok users are obsessed with ‘Criminal Minds.’ They may change TV fandom forever

Thomas Gibson and Joe Mantegna in "Criminal Minds."
Thomas Gibson, left, and Joe Mantegna in “Criminal Minds.” The long-running crime procedural has become popular among young people on TikTok.
(CBS)

One of the first “Criminal Minds” videos Joselyn Martinez posted to TikTok involves a scene in which actor Matthew Gray Gubler appears to break character. She wanted to share the funny moment, not sure how many others had noticed it.

“I posted it and it blew up,” Martinez said of the video, which has clocked more than 814,000 views since it was posted on the social video app. “And I [realized] a lot of people are into the show. I had no idea.”

Since then, the 18-year-old has focused her TikTok account on “Criminal Minds” content, becoming a part of the show’s growing fandom on the platform — which remains available to users despite President Trump issuing an executive order earlier this month banning its China-based parent company, ByteDance, from conducting business transactions with other American companies, citing national security concerns.

We’re not just talking about casual fans here, either: Videos marked with the #criminalminds hashtag have been viewed over 1.5 billion times on TikTok, which is more than 10 times that of content posted under hashtags associated with other popular crime procedurals such as “Law & Order: SVU,” “CSI” and “NCIS” ... combined.

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But the notion of teenagers and young adults creating and sharing digital content about a CBS crime procedural that premiered in 2005 shouldn’t be written off as a humorous novelty. “Criminal Minds” TikTok also offers a striking glimpse at television’s streaming, and social, future.

One key component is the streaming long tail: Although the series, which follows special agents in the FBI’s Behavioral Analysis Unit and their work investigating crimes and profiling serial killers, concluded its 15-season run earlier this year, its first 12 seasons are available to stream on Netflix and continue to attract new fans. (Of course, the vagaries of streaming rights agreements can also create frustrations that physical media, like DVD boxed sets, do not. One Facebook group devoted to discussing what’s on Netflix features a nearly 250-comment thread about why “Criminal Minds’” most recent seasons have yet to be added to the platform’s catalog.)

In turn, TikTok prolongs the series’ lifespan by keeping viewers engaged, especially upon multiple viewings, and by bringing it to the attention of potential new viewers — the most viral TikTok posts are peppered with user comments asking what show the clips are from.

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One of @notjoselyn's (a.k.a. Joselyn Martinez) TikTok videos about the TV series "Criminal Minds."
(@notjoselyn/TikTok)

Caitlin White, 15, said she came across “Criminal Minds” on Netflix and decided to check it out after hearing some positive word-of-mouth reviews. She started watching the show shortly before the coronavirus-related shutdowns and “immediately … became completely obsessed.”

“I love the characters,” said White, who has since watched all 12 seasons available on Netflix. “Before I started watching [‘Criminal Minds’] I got really into listening to serial killer podcasts and learning about … the psychology of it. I thought the show had a fun take on my interests.”

She soon discovered “Criminal Minds” videos and other young fans of the show on TikTok.

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“It’s mostly other people my age making jokes, making little memes … and just discussing the show and how much they like rewatching episodes,” White said. “It’s created this huge community, and I think it’s just really great because people with similar interests are coming together. That’s really cool.”

Among the “Criminal Minds” videos posted on TikTok are those of fans reacting to specific scenes, skits and even lip-syncing. Fans indulging their appreciation of Dr. Spencer Reid (played by Gubler) — for both his intellect and charm — comprise a prominent subgenre of these videos. Creators also act over audio from “Criminal Minds” scenes, or adapt other trending audio or memes to “Criminal Minds” characters and scenarios. The more users engage with videos tagged #criminalminds, the more likely the app incorporates videos with that hashtag on its curated “for you” landing page.

Eugene Lee, chief executive of ChannelMeter, a company that provides analytics and monetization for video creators, described TikTok as “the new water cooler.”

“This is the new way to talk about a show, and if I were a large media company … I would make sure that any show I produce has that snackable element that people can make content off of,” Lee said. “That’s what makes the show last longer. I believe this is the true, new marketing way for any new type of content coming forward.”

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Creating and sharing works inspired by TV shows has long been a part of fan culture. Fan fiction and fanzines — unofficial stories and publications created by fans — predate the internet and social media. Technological advances have simply helped make fan culture more accessible: It’s now easier than ever to find and share fan art, fan videos, GIFs, memes and other content.

Lee explained that part of TikTok’s appeal is its ease of use — creators shoot, edit and post their short videos all within the app, and the posts can immediately be disseminated.

Plus, “TikTok [has made] conversation the content too,” Lee said about how the platform encourages engagement. “It’s not just someone commenting back, they’re creating their own video back.”

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Joselyn Martinez's TikTok videos about "Criminal Minds" frequently feature the actor Matthew Gray Gubler.
Joselyn Martinez’s TikTok videos about “Criminal Minds” frequently feature the actor Matthew Gray Gubler, who played Dr. Spencer Reid in the series.
(@notjoselyn/TikTok)

These elements have made TikTok a perfect platform for fandom to bloom, though the exact effect on viewership is harder to pin down. After all, “Criminal Minds” has maintained a steady and devoted following for years. A 2016 New York Times project counted the drama among the 50 TV shows with the most likes on Facebook. Additionally, a 2019 study by the Norman Lear Center at USC Annenberg and futurePerfect found that “Criminal Minds” is one the few shows whose viewerships crosses political divides in the U.S. — meaning it is equally popular among liberals, conservatives and those in-between.

Certainly, it appears that widespread stay-at-home orders designed to slow the spread of COVID-19 have driven audiences to (re-)discover and binge the series as much as social media has. Though Netflix only selectively releases viewership numbers, according to Parrot Analytics, which measures multiplatform demand for TV shows, “Criminal Minds” was the 13th most in-demand series in the U.S. between July 18 and Aug. 16, putting it in the top 0.2% of shows. Additionally, the data show that U.S. demand for “Criminal Minds” has been increasing in recent months, with demand 21.3% higher during July than it was in March. The U.S. demand for the show was 77% higher this July compared to the same month in 2019.

Like White, Martinez — who remembers catching reruns of the show with her grandfather as a child — started watching “Criminal Minds” in order for the first time around the time statewide lockdowns began in response to the pandemic. (“We have a lot more time on our hands,” she said.)

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Whatever the reason for its recent surge, though, “Criminal Minds’” sustained popularity as its approaches the 15th anniversary of its premiere next month is yet another example of the streaming value of long-running broadcast series like “Seinfeld,” “The Office,” “The Big Bang Theory” and “Friends,” which have sparked bidding wars as platforms seek to add fan favorites to their libraries.

Prestige TV and original programming may inspire more discussion among critics, but they’re not the only shows that can drive fans to flex their creativity or express their love. And that combination of staying power, viewer loyalty and passionate interest is central to the high engagement that both streaming and social media platforms use to measure success.

For her part, Martinez has no plans to stop posting “Criminal Minds” content — or taking it as an opportunity to share opinions and connect with other fans and creators.

“The fun thing,” she said, “is that I never run out of ideas.”


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