E! NEWS EXCLUSIVE: Insider Secrets From the Birth of True Crime Television
Everywhere you look these days, there's a new true crime series. Whether it's a podcast or a documentary or a made-for-TV movie, audiences simply can't get enough of the mysteries behind real-life murders. But once upon a time there was no Making a Murderer, no The Jinx, no Serial.
Back in 2004, a little show called Snapped hit the airwaves. In the early aughts, crime shows that didn't fall under the Cops umbrella were a novelty—never mind one that focused primarily on female killers. (Who, for the record, commit less than 10% of the murders in this country, according to the FBI.) Television viewers may not have known it at the time, but they were thirsting, starving even, for true crime programming.
And now, as the landmark show prepares to launch its 20th season, it still has a lot to teach its many, many predecessors.
First, let's set the scene. Although streaming services like Netflix existed when Snapped was still a twinkle in Oxygen's eye, they were still almost a decade out from creating any sort of original programming. This was well before today's world of anything goes, true-crime wise. As executive producer (and narrator) Sharon Martin told us, they had to focus on the show's relatability when they were putting the pitch together.
"To a female audience, there's an appeal to seeing women that are similar to them, or women they know, make these choices and take these drastic actions," she said of Snapped's concept. "It's relatable because that could me or someone I know. That's what's kept it going for 20 seasons."
But just because Oxygen got the show off the ground, doesn't mean it found instant viral success the way that the genre does today. Remember, viral wasn't even a thing in 2004. Instead, the show has grown and grown in popularity, just like true crime in general has.
"Whether we would be renewed was always a bit of a gamble," Martin said. "True crime wasn't nearly as popular or mainstream as it is now. Everybody else eventually caught up with us. Not to take too much credit for true crime, but the genre grew around us."
Once it was established that audiences were—excuse the pun—dying to watch a series about female killers, the challenge lied in continuing to keep the episodes fresh and interesting. That means, in layman's terms, seeking out totally insane crimes to tell stories about. One has an image of a team of crime geeks scouring the Internet looking for any and all news of murder, racking up quite the Google search history, but it turns out the process of making the show is a bit more scientific than that.
To start, Snapped has an entire research team devoted to not only hunting down stories, but vetting and verifying current cases. And, they have a team of connections at police departments and prosecutor's offices all across the country. Anytime a story comes up that seems like a great fit for Snapped, the first thing the prosecutors or police officers do (okay, maybe not the very first thing) is call up the Snapped team to give them the heads up. The research team then takes over to make sure it's the perfect fit for the audience.
Devoted Snapped fans will know that the most compelling parts of any episode are the interviews with the families and witnesses to the crime. It's also what makes the show different from programs like Missing Richard Simmons—the main characters are all willing participants. The amount varies from case to case and it's a very personal decision for each family, but as Martin puts it, "It's not a surprise to anyone involved in a high-profile case to be asked to be on a show."
But, they have a rule that they only approach those involved in a murder once it's been adjudicated (that's court jargon done in court), to ensure that the emotions aren't as fresh as, say, local news coverage of an investigation that's currently ongoing.
As the current surge in true crime shows has taught us, sensitivity is perhaps the most important aspect of making any documentary-style program. Series like Making a Murderer or podcasts like Missing Richard Simmons have shown us the potentially dark side of prying, and audiences are more keen to pick out this type of treatment when they're watching. As such, Martin and her Snapped team could be considered to be under heightened scrutiny in this day and age.
"We haven't made any changes to our process based on the surge in popularity [of true crime], but we have always tried our hardest to be very sensitive," she explains. "When we're interviewing people that are involved in a case, it's never out of my mind that this is a story I have the privilege of telling. I take that responsibility very importantly; these families that talk to us have had terrible things happen to them."
Some of the subject matter is so dark, in fact, that it can begin to haunt even a seasoned true crime veteran. Martin has been executive producing and narrating Snapped for 20 seasons and she admits that there are certain crimes that stick with her.
"I have a teenage daughter, so anything that involves a teenager feels a little too close to home for me," she told E! "The viewers feel the same way—when you see the show and think, that happened down the street from me, that's eerie. There was one crime in Washington, when a woman starved her victims to death under the guise of helping them, and that was an episode that scared me. And I look at these crimes every day."
But the show must go on, even despite the potential nightmares, and this landmark season has plenty of haunts on the docket. As Martin teased for us, they have everything from mother-daughter crimes to Mother-in-law crimes. There are no huge changes in the works for the veteran show, but that seems to be just the way its fans like it—fans that include the likes of Lady Gaga, Rihanna and Viola Davis, no less. Now that social media has been introduced to the fold, the Snapped team is able to see minute-by-minute reactions to each episode, and they're now armed with the knowledge of the exact moments that fascinate its fan base.
In other words, they're not slowing down any time soon.