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Entertainment | Why today’s audiences can’t get enough true crime
by Mary Jackson
Posted 3/22/19, 03:59 pm

Gut-wrenching and bewildering true crime documentaries and podcasts have surged in popularity in recent years, showing the public has a growing appetite for these real-life narratives and the questions they evoke.

Millions of viewers have already tuned in this year to documentaries about murder and sexual abuse. This month, HBO released The Case Against Adnan Syed, a docuseries that revisits the 1999 murder of a high school student in Maryland, and Leaving Neverland, a film featuring two men who claim pop star Michael Jackson sexually abused them when they were children. Netflix recently released The Disappearance of Madeleine McCann and Abducted in Plain Sight, the newest installments in the streaming giant’s wildly popular true crime genre. In January, the Lifetime cable channel aired the docuseries Surviving R. Kelly, which detailed sexual abuse allegations against the R&B singer.

The documentaries follow a wave of true crime hits that began about four years ago with Netflix’s Making a Murderer and The Keepers, HBO’s The Jinx, and the podcast Serial (about the same murder documented in The Case Against Adnan Syed), all of which gained massive audiences.

Social media has boosted the popularity of many recent true crime documentaries as users gather online to discuss them. In 2015, the finale of The Jinx drew more than 1 million viewers and 35,000 tweets. More recently, Leaving Neverland, Surviving R. Kelly, and Abducted in Plain Sight sparked open discussions on social media about the nature of sexual abuse, including a closer look at perpetrators, victims and their families, and how to intervene.

“This is a true pop-culture phenomenon,” Kristen Houser, spokeswoman for the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, told me.

The #MeToo era coincided with the ballooning popularity of long-form, high-quality, and multiplatform storytelling by podcasts, streaming TV, and news outlets.

“Now, it is possible for us to hear the victim’s perspective in a way that we have not been open to before. … The silence is breaking,” Houser said.

While true crime narratives often play to viewers’ worst fears, Houser said, they also reveal shared experiences and show that many offenses are not one-off––perpetrators can be neighbors, friends, family, or church members. For the sake of violence and abuse prevention, she said, “it is a good thing that we are more willing now to pay attention to the way people intentionally violate trust.”

For Christians, the stories show the depths of our depravity and voyeurism, said John Stonestreet, president of the Chuck Colson Center for Christian Worldview and a regular guest on The World and Everything in It’s weekly “Culture Friday” segment. He added that they also represent a “real reckoning happening right now with the bitter fruit of the sexual revolution. … Tragically, because bad ideas have victims, the stories must be told if we are ever going to face how bad some of these ideas were.”

Still, Stonestreet expressed concern that these films turn personal tragedies into public entertainment: “These are stories to us, but wrecked lives to those involved.”

John Schmidt, an associate professor of cinema and media arts at Biola University, agreed.

“Our motives for watching are not always pure,” he said. “We’re at the scene of a crime and we can’t look away. It’s salacious.”

Associated Press/Photo by Carlos Osorio Associated Press/Photo by Carlos Osorio New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft

Kraft in court

Prosecutors have offered to drop the charges against New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft and about 300 other men caught in a crackdown on prostitution and human trafficking in Florida if the men enter a diversion program for first-time offenders. Police accuse the men of patronizing illicit massage parlors that kept women from China captive as prostitutes. The deal prosecutors are offering would require the men to pay a $5,000 fine, do 100 hours of community service, and attend a class on the dangers of prostitution and its connection to human trafficking. They would also have to make a court appearance and be tested for sexually transmitted diseases. Prosecutors say the fine and community service are required by law and are not negotiable, but attorneys representing some of the accused say their clients will not accept the offer because it is much tougher than what other Palm Beach County solicitation offenders received. Kraft’s attorneys and the Patriots declined to comment.

Lawyers for Kraft and the other men are also fighting to keep a judge from releasing video recordings of their alleged crimes. A group of news outlets has asked a judge to release the evidence in the case to the public, something Florida law usually allows. —Lynde Langdon

Associated Press/Photo by Chris Pizzello Associated Press/Photo by Chris Pizzello Fox Studios in Los Angeles

Building up the mouse house

Disney closed on its $71 billion acquisition of Fox’s entertainment business this week, bringing The Simpsons TV program and the X-Men movie series under same corporate umbrella as the Star Wars and Marvel superhero franchises. The deal paves the way for Disney to launch its own streaming service called Disney Plus, due out later this year. It will also likely lead to layoffs in the thousands because of duplication between the two companies’ staffs. With the buyout, Disney aims to better compete with streaming services such as Amazon Prime Video and Netflix for viewers’ attention. Disney CEO Bob Iger said in an earnings call in February that Disney Plus and other direct-to-consumer businesses are the company’s No. 1 priority.

In addition to boosting the Disney streaming service, the deal paves the way for the X-Men and the Avengers, both created by Marvel Comics, to reunite in future movies. Though Disney owns Marvel Studios, some characters, including the X-Men, had already been licensed to Fox.

Disney also gets a controlling stake in the streaming service Hulu, which it plans to keep operating as a home for more general programming. Family-friendly shows and movies will head to Disney Plus. —L.L.

Associated Press/Photo by Toru Takahashi Associated Press/Photo by Toru Takahashi Ichiro Suzuki waves to fans as he leaves the field Thursday in his final game with the Seattle Mariners in Tokyo.

A baseball great

Famed Seattle Mariners outfielder Ichiro Suzuki walked off the field for the final time Thursday at Japan’s Tokyo Dome. The 10-time All-Star announced his retirement after a final game against the Oakland Athletics played in his home country. Suzuki went hitless in the two-game stand to open the season, but the Mariners won both games.

Suzuki made his professional debut in the United States in 2001 with the Mariners but played nine seasons in Japan before that. The hitter’s accolades in the major leagues include American League MVP, Rookie of the Year, and 10 Gold Glove awards. The 45-year-old, who finished with a career .311 batting average, said he had just one regret.

“I had 3,089 hits in America,” Suzuki said. “But I think my wife—who always makes me rice balls before games—said she made 2,800 rice balls. So I wish I could have played long enough so she could have hit 3,000, as well.” —L.L.

Mary Jackson

Mary is a graduate of the World Journalism Institute mid-career course and lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with her husband and four children. Follow Mary on Twitter @mbjackson77

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