Investigation Discovery is growing fast with an old trick for luring its predominantly female viewers: Scaring and titillating them with stories of shocking crimes, then making them feel like they can help catch the perpetrators.
Along the way, the network says, they may even learn to avoid becoming victims.
Investigation Discovery's lineup includes a slew of shows that prey on women's fears of murderous husbands or mystery assailants out to abduct them or their children. A recent ad campaign for the new show "Fatal Encounters" imagines a murder victim's thoughts from beyond the grave: "If I hadn't opened that door, I might be alive today," says the ad, which accompanies an image of an attractive blonde woman peeking over a door chain.
The network's audience is about 60 percent female, though network president Henry S. Schleiff says it is the only female-skewing network that men might enjoy alongside their wives and girlfriends.
"It's really about the mystery," he told TheWrap. "And women, in particular, are very intuitive, and they love the puzzle solving. And they love the idea of using their intuition – so do guys – but they love the idea of sort of saying, 'I knew it wasn't the person who you thought did it, and that the evidence pointed to. I knew all along it was someone else.'"
The network's nickname, ID, couldn't be more fitting. It is both an abbreviation and a succinct explanation of exactly what the investigators — onscreen and at home — hope to do to the bad guys.
ID's stories about real crimes, often with twist endings, are "titillating from every perspective," Schleiff said. But they may inform as well as entertain. Women can pick up safety tips from shows like "Stalked," or learn to "keep their antennae up" from "Who the (Bleep) Did I Marry?" he says.
ID serves as a sort of safe zone for its armchair detectives, where not even the most delicate sensibilities are in danger. It wisely avoids depicting the violence acts described on its shows, said Marla Backer, an analyst at Hudson Square Research.
"You don't see a tremendous amount of graphic violence, and there's a reason for that," she said. "They know the channel skews female, and they want to keep it that way."
She credits ID with identifying a "clearly underserved" and compelling genre.
The Trayvon Martin case – in which Internet sleuths have pored over 911 calls and even examined Martin's tweets, thinking they might help crack the case – is only the latest reminder of our human instinct to investigate. The Casey Anthony trial similarly fueled people's sense that they might crack the case, just by watching it.
In some cases, viewers do have valuable information. More than 1,100 fugitives have been captured thanks in part to tips to "America's Most Wanted," which moved to Lifetime after Fox canceled it last year.
But most of the time, viewers are watching for the thrills. Schleiff notes that mysteries and procedurals have always thrived on television, and that scary storytelling goes back to images of beasts on cave walls.
The former Court TV and Hallmark executive, who also holds a law degree, says the 24/7 emphasis on crime and mystery is what makes his network unique.
"I'm embarrassed to tell you," he said. "I don't think it's the most original idea. But the idea of curating it and putting it under one umbrella – that's the originality."
It's working. In the first three months of this year, ID has grown 40 percent in total viewers and 55 percent in viewers 18 to 49 in total day audience. No network of its size or larger – it averages 585,000 daily viewers – has grown so much in total viewers in that time, and no network of any size has grown so much in the 18-49 demo.
It grew dramatically in primetime as well, expanding by 20 percent in total viewers and 24 percent in the 18-49 demo. Of networks with as large a primetime audience as ID's — it averages 696,000 total viewers — only TBS and VH1 grew by larger percentages in both total viewers and the 18-49 demo. AMC, benefiting from the hit "Walking Dead," posted a larger primetime gain in the demo, 29 percent, but a smaller gain in total viewers.
ID's schedule often resembles a rogue's gallery of frights. "Behind Mansion Walls" looks at what happens when "family dynasties implode, high-stakes divorces end in bloodshed and rich decadence turns to death," according to ID's website. Another show, "Nothing Personal," looks at murders for hire.
"Who the (Bleep) Did I Marry?," meanwhile, taps into Scott Peterson-inspired anxieties. It has spawned a spinoff about babysitters, blind dates, and other potential threats: "Who the (Bleep) Did I ______?" will fill in the blank each episode.
All of ID's shows share a similar blend of sympathy for the victims, disgust for the killers, and a sense of hope that they may one day be caught. They linger ever-so-briefly on grim details that also could be be evidence. (Especially if the people watching at home are actually detectives.)
A recent segment on "Dark Minds" – in which the hosts work with an unidentified serial killer to find new insights into old cases – perfectly carried out the ID formula.
One of the hosts, soul-patched, leather-jacketed crime author W. William Phelps, begins with a voiceover about an 11-year-old girl murdered 39 years ago outside Rochester, N.Y. She was one of three victims whose first and last names, in each case, began with the same first letter as the name of their towns. Because of this, the killings are collectively known as "the alphabet murders."
"Wanda's strangled body was found battered and bruised in this wasteland outside the town of Webster," says Phelps, who then meets with a local reporter at the "wasteland," a stretch of roadside grass.
After the reporter explains that the killer left the girl at the scene and drove back away, Phelps intones: "A human being. Somebody's baby. Just tossed out of a car like a piece of garbage."
"Yeah. No care whatsoever," says the reporter.
More voiceover from Phelps: "Wanda had been raped. But unlike Carmen's attack, this time, there was more than just bruising. The killer had left something behind."
Cut back to the interview, and Phelps telling the reporter: "We're talking about semen in the panties of one of the victims here."
"Exactly," the reporter says. "That's the evidence that they're sure that it would match, if they found the right person."
It's all there: A terrifying crime described in hard-boiled language ("wasteland," "garbage"). Graphic but potentially helpful detail ("semen in the panties") — disclosed only after a dramatic pause. And finally there's a bit of hope that the crime might one day be solved.
Perhaps with your help.