Amid the True Crime Boom, Legacy Franchise ’48 Hours’ Sees a Burst in Popularity

The long-running CBS News program is not just a linear hit, it’s surging in the podcast, YouTube and social media spaces as well

CBS News "48 Hours"
CBS News "48 Hours"

CBS News’ “48 Hours” correspondent Erin Moriarty closed a chapter of a story on Saturday that she had been following for over 20 years. 

In 2000, as Jane Dorotik was awaiting trial after being arrested for the murder of her husband, she allowed “48 Hours” into her home for an interview, which was conducted by Moriarty. The following year, Dorotik was convicted of murder but spent years filing motions requesting new testing of evidence, which resulted in the discovery of serious issues with the conviction. Defense lawyers successfully challenged the case, Dorotik was released, her conviction was overturned, and “48 Hours” was there for all of it.

“I spent 20 years in prison for a crime I did not commit,” Dorotik told Moriarty in a recent interview that aired on Saturday. “I thought truth and justice was at the front of everything and it certainly has not been in my case.”

The episode boasts a rich storytelling tapestry that could only be created by weaving together footage from Moriarty’s first interview with Dorotik over 20 years ago. 

“We not only show how the case developed, but what was done so unfairly in her case and why she would be convicted of something it looks very much like she did not do,” Moriarty told TheWrap in an interview. “That is the benefit of ’48 Hours.’ I don’t know any other show that will do that. We’ll stay on the case.”

The program launched in 1988, and while true crime saw its profile raised in the 1990s — particularly with the O.J. Simpson trial — the genre has exploded in popularity in the streaming age. But as prestige streamers pump out original true crime docuseries, “48 Hours” is taking advantage of CBS’ vast network to find sustained success outside linear, expanding into streaming, podcasts and even social media.

Executive producer of “48 Hours” Judy Tygard stressed to TheWrap that the show’s lack of turnover is key to the quality of its storytelling. “The length of time that we’ve been on the air enables us to follow cases, not just for years, but for decades,” she said. “And we have so little turnover in our team.” 

“There’s nobody else that can say that because nobody else has such a cohesive team to be able to go into the archive and use the same storytellers to update these stories,” Tygard said, adding that the collection is arguably “the most extensive true crime archive in the world.”

“48 Hours” correspondent Peter Van Sant told TheWrap that technological advancements in forensics can suddenly bring a story “back to life,” and the extensive CBS News archives “enrich us to be able to do a multi-layered presentation of a story to give a historical background to it.”

“I think what makes it special are the people that we have on staff, the legacy of producing this show now for more than three decades,” Van Sant continued. “We know how to approach these stories. We know how to interview subjects. But it’s literally the quality of the broadcast.”

“There are people who have tried to emulate our formula and emulate our show,” Van Sant said. “People will go to the original so long as we keep our bargain of doing the best job possible.”

CBS News: ("48 Hours" Correspondents Erin Moriarty, Peter Van Sant, Natalie Morales)
CBS News: (“48 Hours” Correspondents Erin Moriarty, Peter Van Sant, Natalie Morales)

Moriarty, who is a lawyer, describes herself as the “OG,” having been a correspondent for “48 Hours” since 1990, joining just two years after its launch in 1988. Van Sant was named a correspondent for the program in 1998, after serving in many other roles for CBS. Natalie Morales is the latest addition to the “48 Hours” team, joining as a contributor in Oct. 2022. Since joining, Morales has covered well-received episodes including “The Hunt For Sarah Yarborough’s Killer,” “The People v. Kouri Richins,” and “The Menendez Brothers’ Fight for Freedom.”

Newly minted CEO of CBS News, Stations and CBS Media Ventures Wendy McMahon has made it a priority to maximize the value of the network’s brands, with “48 Hours” being one of the best representations of this goal. The franchise is seeing growth not just on broadcast, but on its expanded offerings including podcasts, streaming, and social media content, with the production team led by Tygard constantly finding ways to reach new audiences for true crime reporting. McMahon has made it clear that while CBS News’ linear offerings continue to be important, they don’t define the organization. The “48 Hours” brand is seeing greater exposure on all platforms, driving new audiences and revenue beyond broadcast programming. 

But “48 Hours” has still been able to maintain its relevance on linear TV, nearly four decades later. The program remains the No. 1 non-sports broadcast on Saturday nights for the 17th consecutive year, averaging 3.4 million linear viewers. The franchise also launched into syndication last September, further expanding the program’s reach. 

Tygard credited the continued success of the program on linear TV to both the “quality of storytelling” and “high production values.”

After premiering on the linear network, “48 Hours” becomes available on U.S.-based streaming platforms Paramount+ and CBSNews.com. The franchise is also available on international streaming networks, Fave TV, Pop TV, Pluto UK, Pluto Nordics, Pluto Canada, and Pluto South Africa, and it is licensed in dozens of countries around the globe and also airs on Discovery. 

As viewers move to online platforms, the franchise is also seeing success on YouTube, where it airs full episodes, surpassing 1 million subscribers on the “48 Hours” channel and reaching 291.3 million views in 2023. 

“48 Hours” has invested heavily in its social presence, in an effort to meet a different, generally younger audience where they are. The network has seen 49% growth year-over-year across TikTok, Instagram, Facebook, and X. The major highlight is the program’s success on TikTok, becoming the first true-crime docuseries to surpass 1 million followers on the platform, where 80% of the audience is under 44. 

When asked whether the production team values views and engagement on social media platforms to the same degree that linear TV ratings might be celebrated, Tygard responded in the affirmative, adding that it signifies that “48 Hours” content is “reaching other audiences that we could never reach with linear.”

“We know that we have this quality product and we want to reach everybody we can, so we are happy on any platform that is interested in having our content,” Tygard said. “We worked really hard to deliver it and customize it for the platforms.”

The franchise has also expanded into the podcast space, capitalizing on the medium’s burgeoning interest in true crime content. “48 Hours” podcast offerings have the biggest growth in podcasts of any franchise within the Paramount portfolio. Since 2020, annual downloads increased a massive 458%. 

The “48 Hours Showcast,” which is an audio version of the linear TV program, was named one of the best podcasts for 2023 by Amazon Music. Moriarty’s award-winning podcast “My Life of Crime,” which is in its 4th season, has seen a 358% increase in annual downloads. 

Moriarty told TheWrap that she had been wanting to experiment in the podcast space for a while because it exposes the content to new listeners, while also allowing her the time to expand on certain stories. 

“That’s my great hope is that if you’re a regular watcher of ’48 Hours,’ you’ll get even more by all the podcasts we’re doing,” Moriarty added. “So it’s stories that need to be told in a longer form that can’t be put together on TV on ’48 Hours,’ but can be told over several weeks in a podcast.”

The franchise is continuously looking for ways to expand within the podcast space, developing new content including “Married to Death” and “Inside the Lori Vallow Daybell Trial.”

Without going into specifics, Tygard told TheWrap that the “48 Hours” podcast endeavors have been performing “phenomenally well,” adding that much of the recent success of the show is “driven by the success” of the franchise’s podcast portfolio. 

“There’s a different audience in the podcast world than you’ll find on YouTube, etc…but they all really respond to the storytelling and the content,” the “48 Hours” executive producer continued. “They all create this incredible ecosystem where everybody supports everybody else.”

Something that continues to bring viewers back to “48 Hours” is the care and respect with which they treat the victims of crimes and their continued commitment to social justice. 

“We are coming into people’s lives at the worst time. In their life. They’ve lost a loved one. They are seeking justice. They’re mystified by the judicial system. They want their story told,” Van Sant said. “It’s a story of disaster within that family but we handle it with great sensitivity and with such preparation and with such fairness, producing a story that remembers the victim and honors that victim, and also follows the case to its ultimate justice.”

“Our reporting has been a part of helping to shine a light on wrongful convictions and questionable convictions,” Tygard added. “I’m taking nothing away from the great appellate attorneys who are front and center on this but we all know that when you can publicize a social injustice, it really helps generate the conversation and keeps the pressure.”

Ultimately, what Moriarty finds so fascinating is that true crime, “sadly, is the one thing that people can agree on now,” in such a fractured political environment. “It doesn’t matter what their political background is, they are interested in the same stories. So it actually brings us together in this weird way,” the correspondent said. 

“In a country that’s so divided… it is the one kind of storytelling that people share and can connect with, and I think that shouldn’t be overlooked,” Moriarty said. 

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