Inside ‘Making a Murderer’ and New Wave of True-Crime TV Inspired by ‘Serial’

“I do think that we’re at a moment here where there is an appetites for these kinds of stories,” Moira Demos, co-creator of the hit Netflix series, tells TheWrap

Few shows got television programmers as turned on as “Serial” did in 2014. Never mind the fact that it was never on TV. By the time that the 12-part exploration of a 1999 murder became the fastest podcast to reach 5 million iTunes downloads, producers and executives were already trying to figure out how to replicate the success of “Serial” on television.

HBO did so with “The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst,” the series that earlier this year ended with the blockbuster confession by Durst to murder accusations that have dogged him for decades. That show and “Serial” reinvigorated the musty true-crime genre by applying long-form storytelling techniques that play well in an era of digital platforms and binge watching. They also paved the way for a new crop of serialized true-crime series with similarly big ambitions — series made possible by recent shifts in the television landscape.

One of those series is Netflix’s “Making a Murderer,” which premiered this month and has matched its predecessors’ buzz. The docuseries about Steven Avery, a Wisconsin man who spent years in prison for a crime he was later cleared of, only to be charged with a new crime after his release, is the product of 10 years of work by filmmakers Laura Ricciardi and Moira Demos. When they started, the possibility that the marketplace would evolve to support a 10-part series on a platform available to nearly 100 million people worldwide was impossible to predict.

“Certainly, in the marketplace, with the advent of streaming content, there are new ways of consuming product, and that creates new ways of delivering product,” Demos told TheWrap. “The storytelling revolves a lot around format. Netflix doesn’t have ad breaks. You don’t have to hit 48 minutes exactly.”

Netflix and other streaming services — such as HBO Now — also facilitate binge viewing, which favors highly serialized storytelling. Though true-crime has long been a television staple, it has traditionally been presented in an episodic format.

That type of programming has been hugely successful. Investigation Discovery, which specializes in it, finished 2015 as the 20th most watched cable network of 2015, ahead of Bravo, CNN and Comedy Central, among others. It did so — averaging 891,000 viewers per night in primetime — by appealing largely to older, female viewers who watch in real time.

ID’s sister network Discovery Channel is partnering with Sirens Media, producer of many of those ID shows, on “Killing Fields” a serialized cold-case investigation series that has more in common with “The Jinx” and “Making a Murderer” than with “Killer Confessions” and “Sex Sent Me to the Slammer.”

“With the success of something like ‘Serial,’ we were all taking another look at crime,” Joseph Schneier, executive producer of “Killing Fields” for Discovery told TheWrap.  “That program expanded way beyond the typical true-crime viewer.”

Programmers looking to expand their own audiences in a similar way appear now to have cracked the “Serial” code.

“I do think that we’re at a moment here where there is an appetites for these kinds of stories,” Demos said. “Making a Murderer,” she added “clearly has some things in common” with “Serial” and “The Jinx,” as well as elements that make each unique.

“There clearly is an appetite for long-form storytelling and in-depth coverage of a single case with complex characters where you think one thing, then you find out another,” Demos said.