America's Scariest Home Videos: Serial Killers and Reality Television

By Simpson, Philip L. | Post Script, Spring 2003 | Go to article overview

America's Scariest Home Videos: Serial Killers and Reality Television


Simpson, Philip L., Post Script


Introduction

During the mid- to late-1980s, the American television industry became increasingly dominated by so-called "reality" programming centered around sensational true-crime stories. This trend created and promoted a wide range of ratings-successful and cheap-to-produce police-procedural shows, such as America's Most Wanted and Cops, devoted exclusively to the on-air apprehension of criminals. "Human interest" journalistic programs like Inside Edition, Unsolved Mysteries, and A Current Affair routinely featured lurid "case studies" and reenactments of particular crimes. The victims of these crimes were typically depicted as virtuous middle Americans, the perpetrators as evil deviants. Television talk shows such as Geraldo similarly portrayed serial killers in uncompromisingly bipolar terms. Toward this end, a perennial favorite of the "reality TV" crime coverage was the so-called serial killer, whose multiple body counts, grisly deeds inflicted upon hapless strangers, and often lengthy trials lent themselves well t o the kind of tabloidverite now a staple of much news programming.

In fact, serial killer stories initially defined the critically disreputable reality-TV genre and helped shape many of its most distinctive conventions, defined by Richard Kilborn as "presenter talk, verite material, dramatic reconstruction and various forms of audience participation" in "one hybrid mix" (423). One of the first true examples of television serial killer coverage was a 1984 HBO "America Undercover" documentary entitled Murder: No Apparent Motive and featuring crime re-enactments, a strategy destined to become ubiquitous in televisual tabloid journalism. The cable program was an individual example of a mutually beneficial effort between the media and law enforcement to introduce the term "serial murder" to a large national audience--the media to garner ratings from a crime-obsessed public, law enforcement to generate enough fear of the "new" phenomenon to justify the public approval and subsequent funding of the FBI's centralized crime database and national violent-offender-tracking facility (see Jenkins). In turn, the serial killer "wave" blended with a media tendency to "stress the exceptional over the commonplace...ev en though this distorts the nature of most crime that occurs" (Elias 4). Sensational crime, especially serial murder, was for these reasons vastly over-emphasized by both media and law enforcement. Cultural critics, in turn, have tended to suspect that reality-TV programs such as Cops and America's Most Wanted are thinly veiled advertisements for the need for strict law-enforcement surveillance of the masses.

The political and commercial agenda behind the media/police collusion notwithstanding, the media-consuming public was captivated by accounts of the exploits of a sensational "new" villain, the serial killer. Murder: No Apparent Motive proved to be one of the more important and durable entries. The program's brief utilization of recreated serial homicides, edited together with more extensive video and still photos of the actual murderers and their victims, inaugurated a convention of "reality TV" crime coverage that shows no sign of disappearing. For this reason alone, Murder: No Apparent Motive is an important cultural artifact in any analysis of the narrow but precipitous distance between tabloid and "respectable" journalism. Soon to follow was PBS's "The Mind of a Murderer" in 1984 and Manhunt Live, a December 7, 1988 broadcast hosted by Patrick Duffy, which centered around the search for the as-yet-uncaught Green River Killer in Washington State and invited viewers to call in to a special hotline their tip s and suspicions regarding the identity of the murderer. This formula was to be replicated for the John Walsh-hosted America's Most Wanted (Jenkins 91-92). Biographical profiles such as the ones regularly aired on cable television's Arts & Entertainment (A&E) Channel and The Learning Channel, as well as the more unrestrained treatments presented on syndicated talk shows such as Geraldo, carried the televisual representation of the serial killer into the 1990s. …

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