Netflix’s show “Dahmer — Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story,” a fictional account of the serial killer’s life, has become the streaming giant’s second-most-watched English-language series three weeks after its debut in September.
It was helmed by Ryan Murphy, the creator of shows like “Glee” and “American Horror Story,” who produced the show under his $300 million deal with Netflix.
The success of the series underscores the popularity of true crime, where big money can be made. Projects can sell for millions of dollars.
Back in 2020, The New York Times paid $25 million for Serial Productions, the company behind the popular non-fiction podcast “Serial,” whose first season covered the 1999 murder of Hae Min Lee, a Baltimore high school student.
While the true crime genre has long been popular fodder for the small screen — including docuseries such as “Unsolved Mysteries” and the news and documentary show “Dateline” — its footprint seems to be growing exponentially.
True crime now consists of seemingly countless subgenres spanning multiple platforms that include network and cable television, streaming services, and podcasts. It’s so popular that there are entire television networks devoted to true crime stories, such as Investigation Discovery and Oxygen, said Ed Hersh, a veteran TV executive, industry consultant focusing on true crime and an adjunct professor at Syracuse University.
Hersh said true crime stories include reality shows such as Cops, the crime-science show Forensic Files, the limited documentary series Making a Murderer and scripted dramas such as Netflix’s Dahmer.
The taxonomy of true crime can break down in other ways too – besides whodunits, there are “whydunits”.
“You’re entering the criminal mind. Why would anyone do that? We know who did it. Now we want to find out why,” Hersh said.
Then there are true crime stories, which he calls “howdunits.” Consider: the Theranos scandal, in which founder Elizabeth Holmes was found guilty of misleading investors about her blood-testing company. These cases explore questions like, ‘How could someone get away with this?'” Hirsch said.
The biggest area of growth, despite the popularity of the fictional “Dahmer,” is nonfiction, he said.
How true crime shows are developed
“It’s a long and arduous process to get something on the air,” said Rob Dorfman, who founded the production company Strong Island Films with his wife, Cindy Dorfman.
The Dorfmans produce true crime films and series for Lifetime Movie Network and Discovery ID, including My Uncle Is the Green River Killer and The True Story of Maria Elena Salinas. Most recently, they produced and directed “Making an Exoneree,” a 2021 documentary that follows Georgetown University students reinvestigating possible wrongful conviction cases.
Cindy Dorfman explained the appeal of true crime to audiences is that “they want to know what makes people kill people, why murders happen, how people disappear. Everything is wrapped up in these different packages. This is the mystery of what happened. And then there’s the human psyche – trying to figure it out. Why would anyone do something like that?’
Because there is so much competition in the true crime space, “you have to have a unique entry point,” said Rob Dorfman.
“What is a unique storyline that you have that no one else has?” he said. “It’s like anything else — you’re competing in the marketplace.”
Based on his experience, Rob Dorfman said TV networks like Oxygen or ID might opt for a six-episode order per series if they approve a pitch.
“In the past they used to take about 10,” he said. “But with the economy and the economics of the television industry, they want to see if it’s doing well first. Sometimes they just choose a pilot.
Budgets for these episodes can range from $400,000 to $600,000 per episode.
However, the cost of making shows and movies can vary depending on whether you’re using your phone to capture footage or more sophisticated equipment.
“We own all our equipment … and we own our editing systems. We invested in our company so we shouldn’t have to pay for these things,” said Cindy Dorfman. “But it can be quite expensive.”
If you do it right, she said, a 90-minute film can cost more than $1 million to produce and edit. “It’s expensive,” she said.
But true-crime documentaries typically cost less than scripted, fictional TV shows or movies, where you have to hire writers, directors, cameramen and stars, said Hirsch, the industry consultant.
Variety reported in 2017 that FX spends between $3.5 million and $4 million per hour on its dramas, with Ryan Murphy’s American Crime Story costing nearly $6 million.
How the true crime business has changed
Hersh said advertisers have grudgingly embraced true crime. “Audiences love it and advertisers go where audiences go,” he said. “Advertisers like to fish where the fish are.”
True crime storytelling has also evolved into an ecosystem where the popularity of a story in one medium can lead to adaptations in others.
“There’s kind of a podcast to TV show and a TV show to podcast pipeline,” Hersh said. “Podcasts inspire TV shows and TV shows inspire podcasts.”
For example, Cindy and Rob Dorfman turned the investigative podcast “Up and Vanished” into a television show on Oxygen. They did the opposite, turning an episode they did for the TV adaptation of “Up and Vanished” into what is now their podcast, “Partners in True Crime,” which focuses on the disappearance of Oklahomans Molly Miller and Colt Haynes.
“We decided, ‘Oh, we’ve got all this material that you obviously can’t cover in an hour. So let’s take a deeper dive. And the only way we could really do a deeper dive was through the podcast,” Cindy Dorfman said. “The podcast was very successful. We had over 300,000 downloads in four months.”
The podcast features interviews with family members of Miller and Haynes, particularly Miller’s cousin Paula Fielder, who has been trying to solve her disappearance for nearly a decade.
“What the podcast has always been about for me since we met Paula … was what the family goes through and how horrible it is and how we can stop these things from happening,” Cindy Dorfman said.
The ethics of true crime
As true crime has grown in popularity, so has the backlash, with critics calling the genre exploitative and pointing out how some of the stories focus too much on the perpetrators.
Eric Perry — a relative of Errol Lindsey, one of Dahmer’s victims — said on Twitter that Netflix’s “Dahmer” the show was “retraumatizing.”
“I want people to understand that this is not just a story or historical fact, these are real people’s lives. [Lindsey] he was someone’s son, someone’s brother, someone’s father, someone’s friend, from whom he was torn away [our] lives,” Perry told the Los Angeles Times.
Betony Butler, who covers television and pop culture for The Washington Post, said in an interview with NPR that it can be difficult to do true crime stories without revictimizing the people at the center of those cases.
But on a show like Netflix’s “The Keepers” — which explores the case of Cathy Chesnick, a Baltimore nun murdered more than 50 years ago — the focus remains on Chesnick.
“Throughout all the episodes, you really feel like Sister Kathy is at the center,” Butler said.
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