Jodie Gaines was 18 years old and on her way to a fish fry when she saw the blue lights of a cop car flash in her rearview. As detailed in an episode of House of Horrors: Kidnapped—one of a grip of ominously titled programs on the channel Investigation Discovery, the 24-7, true crime network—she was an outgoing high school senior from the tiny, Western Tennessee town of McKenzie, and was looking forward to a weekend home from the prep school she attended a few hours away. “I knew I wasn’t speeding,” she recalls in the program, “but I pulled over without hesitation.” It was a decision that would almost cost her her life: those “cops” were actually three men who kidnapped her for ransom, holding her for three days chained to a metal bed in a remote cabin before she made a miraculous escape.
The year was 1978. Gaines is alive to tell her story on House of Horrors, just one of the many true-life testimonials on Investigation Discovery’s programming, which couches nonfiction retellings of murders, kidnappings, abuse, rapes, stalking, and other harrowing experiences alongside elaborate reenactments and personal statements from survivors, family members, investigators, witnesses, and experts. These shows depict the real-life manifestations of our deepest fears, losing ourselves or a loved one at the hands of a deranged maniac or, worse and more likely, a person we know. They dramatize—and sometimes over-dramatize—the strength and resilience of, mostly, women, in the face of unspeakable horror, in a 24-hour cycle, ordeal after ordeal after ordeal.
Despite its macabre, endless, often difficult-to-watch stream of true tales depicting the evils of humanity—or perhaps because of all that—Investigation Discovery is one of women’s most-watched cable networks on television, becoming the third-most-watched ad-supported network among women ages 25-54 in just seven years on air, according to Nielsen. Overall, for the week ending August 2, it was the 11th most popular network on all of cable television, beat out mostly by more general, scripted networks like Nickelodeon, Disney, TNT and USA. (For contrast, Lifetime ranked at number 19; ESPN at 25.)
Investigation Discovery separates itself from other crime-oriented networks by combining shows featuring hard-hitting news journalism (Dateline on ID, Deadline: Crime with Tamron Hall, On the Case With Paula Zahn), personality-driven entertainment (Susan Lucci hosts the soft-lit Deadly Affairs; Wendy Williams will begin hosting Death by Gossip beginning October 9) and shows that tell true-life stories with shadowy, often overwrought, reenactments (Evil Twins, Who the BLEEP Did I Marry). In June, the channel introduced its first original scripted miniseries, Serial Thriller: Angel of Decay, based on the true tales of Ted Bundy, which further ventured into the realm of lower-budget, hyper-dramatic television that viewers flock to on channels from CBS to Lifetime—with the exception, of course, that ID’s shows consistently portray a sordid onslaught of violence, the worst of the human condition, and all of it is true. So why would women rather watch these shows than spritelier channels like LMN or Oxygen?
“It’s the old adage that truth is stranger than fiction,” says Pamela Deutsch, a Senior Executive Producer at ID, who worked on reality shows like What Not to Wear and LA Ink before joining ID five years ago. “The idea of relatable characters is something that’s really important to us, because I think that really speaks to why people really enjoy true crime: a lot of the people that we feature really look like your friends and neighbors. People just want to understand the whys. You hear all these stories in the news, and it just gives us kind of a desire to understand, like, ‘How did this person make that wrong turn? They look just like me!’”
ID’s programming philosophy sits at the perfect intersection of reality television’s voyeurism, the realtime sleuthing of a mystery, and the dogged fact-finding of news journalism; that it has been able to variously manipulate these core elements into a collection of shows that splits the difference is its genius. Even its corniest reenactments and most clearly altered “reality” shows (Cry Wolfe, looking at you) possess a wicked and tangible appeal. Its fans have mobilized into a hive—#IDAddicts, they call themselves—and identify and converse with one another on Twitter through hashtags, live-tweeting mysteries the way other TV watchers live-tweet Empire or the Oscars.
“If you hashtag ID Addicts on Twitter, I sort of call it a club because there are so many people around the world watching it. I’ve met a lot of people, it’s very cool,” says Christopher Michael Ward, a Columbus, Ohio-based ID Addict since 2008, and an active live-tweeter of shows like Tabloid and Cry Wolfe. “Hopefully this becomes a pop culture phenomenon, because I’m very passionate about it.”
Kim Cumms, an ID Addict from Detroit, Michigan, who watches the channel a couple hours about three times a week and tweets about shows like Fear Thy Neighbor and Southern Fried Homicide, adds, “It’s fun just to tweet with the other people who watch it. Sometimes we go about [solving the mysteries] in different ways, but we have the same conclusion at the end.”
I know about ID Addiction from experience. Two summers ago, during a particularly languid era, I found myself watching Investigation Discovery in what was almost a state of hypnosis, automatically flipping to channel 23 every time I turned on my television and then, if I had the time, watching for hours. Or, the television would already be on—I was freelancing back then—and I’d somehow whittle away at my deadlines with Investigation Discovery droning quietly in the background, as I subconsciously absorbed hours of true-crime tales narrated by somber, brow-furrowed men and women.
According to Nielsen, this July, viewers aged 25-54 watched the network for 47 minutes in one sitting, while women in that same age group averaged 51 minutes, making it number 1 for length of tune on TV—almost twice the average for cable and broadcast viewers. In 2015, Nielsen reports the the network is on track to hit its highest numbers ever in prime viewers, watched by an average of over 845,000 during the primetime hours of 8 to 11 PM.
That summer—my summer of ID—I absorbed these stories like a phthalate. Anxiety kicked in as I became more enthralled; even the station tag was intriguing, a ghostly voice whispering investigate over a mildly creepy, minor-key jingle. My favorite show was (and is) Disappeared, which traces the final steps of individuals before they went missing and doesn’t always resolve itself, but leaves a lingering existential residue, encouraging a viewer’s armchair crime-solving skills as well as a terrified acknowledgement that anyone, anywhere, could disappear without a trace. One episode was about a woman who went missing from my home state in 1997; I remember when it happened. Her case remains unsolved.
I’ve since learned I wasn’t alone in binge-watching: Tawanna Johnson, an ID Addict from Tampa, Florida, was first a fan of shows like Snapped and 48 Hours until her friend introduced her to the channel a few years ago, and now she glues herself to Investigation Discovery for her true crime fix. “I pretty much would watch it all day every day,” she says. “You can’t believe that some of this stuff happens. Of course you watch the news, you read the paper, but you don’t really realize how for-real it is. It keeps you on your guard—especially me being a single woman, it keeps me more aware to know what to watch out for. We know that this is real, and when they’re reenacting it, it makes it so much more interesting to watch.”
After a time, my dreams were plagued by vague threats in dark shrouds and my days were spent latching all four of the locks on my apartment door, convinced that it was my fate to die horribly at the hands of an evil stranger with a violent past. It wasn’t quite a fixation, but I realized at a certain point that I needed to take my ID Addiction down a notch. (Tawanna Johnson had the same reaction: “I would have to take a break for a day or two because I would have dreams, like ‘Let me just give this a little break.’ If you’re alone, it does make it a little bit more scary,” she says. “But I won’t stop watching it, though.” I haven’t, either.)
Tamron Hall, the NBC news correspondent, TODAY show co-host, and MSNBC host who also heads up ID’s Deadline: Crime, understands this nightmare more than most of its viewers likely do. She introduces every episode of her show:
“I’m Tamron Hall. I report on a lot of horrific crimes. And when my sister was murdered, crime got personal for me and my family. I understand what it’s like to want answers. In telling these stories, I’m looking for more than just how these crimes happened—I want to know why.”
Hall’s sister, Renate, was murdered in 2004; her killer, who Hall believes to be Renate’s boyfriend at the time, has never been brought to justice.
So, perhaps more than any other show on ID, Hall’s functions from a position of advocacy as well as reportage. Where quite a few of ID’s shows could be considered salacious and are, in fact, created as such—Deadly Affairs, for instance, features reenactments of illicit love gone wrong narrated by daytime soap grande dame Susan Lucci, in a husky tone reminiscent of Quiet Storm radio DJs—Hall is a good example of how ID mitigates dark entertainment with the public interest. As part of its programming, the network works to help victims through PSAs and special partnerships. In June, Hall and ID joined up with Safe Horizon, the national domestic violence advocacy group, for a week of domestic violence awareness on the network, and it has done the same with No More, the awareness campaign covering domestic violence and sexual assault.
“I never see these stories as just a case,” says Hall over the phone. “I know that my role as a journalist is also as someone who’s lost a family member to a violent crime. For me, the minute I get the case, it’s become a ritual where I sit in a hot bath and just meditate on the story. There I am with this huge white binder of information, many facts about the most unpleasant case that you can imagine, but it allows me to focus in this comfortable zone on this story. The day before I meet family members, I meditate over the case, and I try to, as best I can, put myself in their shoes, because that is so important to me.”
Hall’s extra sensitivity informs her analysis of why ID’s viewers are so compelled to binge-watch these terrible stories. “You just wonder, could it happen to you?” she says. “And then there’s the part of us that, I think we all kind of fancy ourselves an attorney, or potential juror, for that matter.”
“You are, in a sense, a juror from your own home, watching all of this play out,” Hall adds. “It’s different when you’re a juror on a trial, when you don’t necessarily learn all the personal details, the heart and soul of someone. But on ID, I think we show you the person while telling you about the crime.”
From the most idealistic viewpoint, ID gives a voice to victims and their families, whose perspectives are often submerged in media coverage that tends to focus more on the warped minds of the perps than the people whose lives have been upended. It’s this concept that ID’s Deutsch wants to emphasize: shows are developed carefully, and those on camera survivors offering their testimony are never pushed further than they’re comfortable with, she says. (Some shows, such as Stalked, feature psychologists and advocates offering analysis into the minds of both perpetrators and targets.)
“We tend to foster the relationships over a long period of time,” says Deutsch. “We definitely want to make them feel safe, and that they’re going to be heard. I think once we have a few episodes of these series in the can, [the tone] kind of speaks for itself. It’s very respectful. It gives [survivors] an opportunity to advocate for their cause. It can be really therapeutic and I think that it sort of empowers them to take ownership of their stories and to tell it from their perspectives.”
Crime television has always drawn an audience—versions of the fictional Perry Mason ran intermittently for nearly four decades, from 1957 to 1995—but true crime TV experienced a boom in the 1980s, with the rampant popularity of Unsolved Mysteries (1987) and America’s Most Wanted (1988). The latter was launched with its own grisly backstory—it was hosted by John Walsh, who became famous in 1981 when his six-year-old son Adam was found murdered and decapitated, helping fuel that era’s abduction panic and transforming Walsh into a lifelong victim’s rights advocate.
Among more science-based true crime shows, the excellent Forensic Files was one of the longest-running, most prolific, and unflinchingly gruesome true-crime shows, debuting in 1996, and airing its final new episode 15 years later in 2011. (It lives on in all its crime-scene glory on Netflix and HLN.) More recently, the era of Nancy Grace has helped propel names like Casey Anthony, Amanda Knox and Jody Arias to courtroom tabloid fodder, creating some weird niche mix of homicide law and true-blue celebrity that’s as uncomfortable and addictive these days as it was in the 1990s, when Court TV turned the Menendez Brothers and OJ Simpson trials into marquee events. In the early 2000s, the late investigative journalist Dominick Dunne’s definitive show Power, Privilege, and Justice brought the unsavory crimes of the blue-chip crowd to Court TV (now Tru TV) for a true-crime series inspired by the murder of his daughter; its sentiment lives on in ID’s Vanity Fair: Confidential, a show which translates stories from Dunne’s former employer into a documentary format.
Most recently, true crime TV received a boost from the shocking conclusion of HBO’s The Jinx: The Shocking Death of Robert Durst, in which the oddball heir appeared to have admitted to multiple murders into a hot mic while alone and washing up in a restroom. (Prior to that, ID had aired several programs spotlighting the investigation into Durst.) The popularity of The Jinx, as well as the runaway success of Serial, reopened the window into our fascination with true crime—and what we saw was a kind of uncanny valley. These narratives’ protagonists—because with Serial and The Jinx, as so often happens, the accused was the center—seemed like altered images of ourselves, recognizable except for their confounding abilities to harm and kill. The unknowability of what exactly went awry, where the program glitched, is what prevents us from looking away, horrified and mesmerized at once.
Women, though, are often incorrectly assumed to be uninterested in gritty procedurals and macabre investigative shows—but Investigation Discovery’s popularity among women is more rule than exception. Crime fiction shows like Law & Order SVU, CSI, and Bones, like ID, all boast a majority of women viewers, and as early as 2008, universities nationwide were attributing the surging amount of women in forensics programs to the “CSI effect” of seeing women represented on television as scientists and detectives. Snapped, which depicts only women killers and would-be killers, is in its 15th season since first airing on the Oxygen Network in 2004, and special episodes focusing on famous killers like Jodi Arias and Yolanda Saldivar (murderer of Selena) have helped beef up its numbers among millennial women.
Investigation Discovery, for its part, has a fairly robust roster of shows about women perps, shows like Wives With Knives, How (Not) to Kill Your Husband, and Pretty Bad Girls. Says Kim Cumms, who counts ID’s Deadly Women among her favorites, “I think when we think of women, we think of mothers, nurturers. So to see a woman who’s out there doing the killing simply because she wants to or because she had to, it’s like, ‘Wow, what pushes a woman to that point?’”
That existential residue, the one that builds up when we are faced with the unknowable, is even more acute in a time when Americans feel there is almost literally nothing both factual and public we cannot feasibly discover. The faux-certainty that accompanies Internet access, coupled with the anxiety and dangers women face both online and off, lends a sort of relief to the act of “solving a crime” as it is told to us on television. It’s comforting; it’s resolution. But even if every cold case in history were solved, we still couldn’t Google a person’s motivations for murder; we can’t crowdsource the psychology behind it. Perhaps it’s that very friction that makes true crime so compelling.
“It’s not about fiction, it’s about things that people have actually done. Not something that someone has invented. It’s stories about everyday people who do incredibly bizarre and violent things,” says Joe Kenda, a retired Colorado police detective who hosts ID’s hit show Lt. Joe Kenda: Homicide Hunter. “The twists and turns, the unknown factor, gives people an opportunity to be an armchair detective in some way. But there’s another fascination as well, and it’s been true for 6000 years. People have gathered around the fire and looked at someone and said, tell me a story. If you can tell a story in an interesting way, you have people’s attention. If it’s a subject that fascinates, you have their undivided attention.”
Lt. Joe Kenda is the closest thing ID has to a Perry Mason, but he’s much more compelling. There is the fact that he spent 23 years at the Colorado Springs Police Department, and there is the fact that he solved 92 percent of the homicides he investigated. (Nationally, one-third of murders typically go unsolved.) His show is simple: he narrates real-life cases from his past, and a “young Kenda” reenacts it all; he’s a masterful storyteller, a marquee host among a stacked roster of them. He speaks like a Pelecanos character come to life, with a capacious way of articulating his unique gumshoe vernacular. Describing the process of taping his show, he says, “I’m good at it. But I have no idea how. Really, I don’t. There is no script, I say whatever comes to mind. Murder cases are immensely complicated. So we have an hour to tell a story, and we must restrict oneself to the highlights. You can’t talk about every rabbit warren that you rush down to find a dead end.”
Kenda himself cops to the same catharsis that Deutsch references: “[Making this ID show is] therapeutic to me,” he says. “There are many moments that you would like to forget, but you cannot forget, Julianne. You can’t unsee certain things. I’ve said more to that camera than I’ve ever said to a person. There have been occasions when my wife will be watching the show. I’ll see her looking at me in front of the TV, I’ll say ‘What are you looking at?’ She’ll say ‘I never knew you did that.’ What do you talk about when you come home, How was your day? Not in my business,” Kenda laughs wryly. “Not in my business.”
So if there’s any great mystery to unraveling why ID is so popular with women—or with me, even, nightmares and all—Lt. Kenda, who is also an open gun control advocate, seems like a good person to ask. He chalks part of it up to our superiority—”Women have more depth to their psyche and to their soul, in my opinion”—but also warns us not to get too wrapped up in the idea that we’ll end up a statistic. “It’s certainly good to be cautious, because we live in a violent society,” he says. “Everyone knows that there is more crime in the US than there is in any other country in the civilized world, maybe—depending upon the country, depending upon what your measurement factors are, whatever. Be aware of your surroundings. Don’t be walking down the street, stumbling along, staring into your smartphone. You’re not real smart if you’re doing that, you know? When you consider that most criminals are opportunists, Julianne—they’re not wizards. They’re only wizards in the movies. In reality they’re blockheads. They circle the herd.”
Season 5 of Lt. Joe Kenda: Homicide Hunter begins tonight, Tuesday, August 18, at 10/9 CST. Deadline: Crime with Tamron Hall will air its season finale this Sunday, August 23, at 10/9 CST. For a full schedule of Investigation Discovery shows, visit InvestigationDiscovery.com.
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Image via screenshot.