The Enthralling World of True Crime Media: Navigating Between Entertainment and Exploitation

From the evening news to fictional crime series like “Criminal Minds,” today’s media landscape is saturated with crime and punishment spectacles aimed at captivating a broad audience and generating profit. A particular iteration of this spectacle, known as “crimesploitation,” refers to reality TV programs that have been showcasing non-actors engaging in, detecting, pursuing, and punishing criminal behaviors since the 1980s. Their documentary style is crafted to produce a semblance of realism, enhancing the emotionally stimulating qualities of the show and distinguishing it from fictional crime stories. Viewers are constantly reminded that the unfolding drama on screen has real-life consequences.

Crimesploitation and Profiting from Criminal Events

Crimesploitation, or the exploitation of crime, represents a subset of reality TV that ranges from heroin consumers injecting drugs on addiction-focused shows to inmates being pulled from their cells by prison officials on jail-life-centered programs, and the apprehension of men seeking sex with minors in shows featuring undercover operations. While many versions are easily dismissed as “trashy” and voyeuristic, others, however, receive critical acclaim. For instance, a new wave of crime reality TV in recent years, exemplified by Netflix’s original documentary series “Making a Murderer,” has been praised for exposing issues within the criminal justice system. Yet, at its core, crimesploitation capitalizes on human suffering under the guise of educating the public about the causes and consequences of criminal behavior and the purposes and effects of criminal punishment. The knowledge disseminated constitutes a form of popular criminology and penology.

However, being produced by the entertainment and news industries, more interested in garnering high viewership than in spreading academic knowledge about crime and punishment, the popular criminology and penology of crimesploitation differ significantly from their academic counterparts. Firstly, due to their widespread dissemination, true crime programs arguably have a greater reach than academic research. Moreover, while the aims of criminology and penology are to explain criminal behavior and punitive practices, an implicit goal of the study of crime and punishment is to reduce the frequency of crime and punishment; crimesploitation, on the other hand, thrives on the subject.

In addition to exploiting mostly unpaid individuals who appear on its various programs, crimesploitation benefits from harmful acts (self-destruction, property damage, extreme punishments, etc.) to profit its producers and corporate investors or, in the rare case of non-profit media organizations, to increase their audience base. Thus, crimesploitation of crime is, therefore, a form of “popular criminology”: it’s a key source of people’s understanding of crime and punishment, but it is not interested in explaining neither criminal behavior nor responses to such behavior in an empirically or theoretically sophisticated manner.

Although crimesploitation programs differ from classic crime exploitation films, as well as their descendants from the 60s and 70s, they share three characteristics with their predecessors: an appeal to the voyeuristic desire to witness scenes of transgression and punishment; the veiling of that appeal with claims of the educational and civic value of the content; and low production costs made possible by a simple format.

Why True Crime Hooks Us

Crimesploitation targets the middle and working-class audience. However, crime exploitation spends much less time portraying its protagonists as once-respectable individuals with whom the audience could identify. Instead, it presents a vivid array of “others” ranging from petty thieves to sexual predators, becoming objects of both curiosity and disgust.

Yet, despite addressing viewers as respectable citizens, crimesploitation offers a voyeuristic journey into worlds where behaviors and experiences that are normally off-limits are commonplace. For instance, “To Catch a Predator,” “Cops,” and “Gangland” focus on the commission, arrest, and response to illegal behavior, often within the same program. Episodes of “To Catch a Predator” show what it means to cross the line separating internet sexual fantasy from a real-life encounter with a forbidden partner; “Cops” episodes display the risks of selling drugs to strangers on the street; “Gangland” provides insider insights on how gang members decide to kill their enemies.

Crimesploitation portrays criminals as examples of the dangers of extreme self-indulgence, yet simultaneously turns them into a spectacle, fueling and satisfying the public’s desire to see people engaging in transgressive behaviors. Crimesploitation openly favors conformity to a conservative moral order but appeals to a taboo desire to witness disorder. It is framed as ethical, yet exploits pain for profit.

Kaplan, P., & LaChance, D. (2017). Crimesploitation. Oxford University Press.