Crime out of con­trol

Free-to-air tele­vi­sion is of­fer­ing 25 crime shows each week, write Colin Vick­ery and Dar­ren Devlyn

Herald Sun - Switched On - - Front Page -

TERRY Clark bru­tally chops the hands and head off a drug run­ner on Un­der­belly, and David and Cather­ine Birnie abduct, drug, rape and mur­der four young women in Perth on Be­yond the Dark­lands.

It’s just an­other week on Aussie tele­vi­sion.

View­ers can sit through a whop­ping 25 crime shows on the free-toair net­works and, if all that blood­shed isn’t enough, a whole net­work is de­voted to it (the Crime & In­ves­ti­ga­tion Net­work) on Fox­tel.

At a time when con­ser­va­tive groups rage against sex and nu­dity in Cal­i­for­ni­ca­tion and les­bians on Home and Away, some­thing far more trou­bling is go­ing un­men­tioned— an over-sat­u­ra­tion of crime shows that seem to revel in the worst of hu­man­ity.

That will con­tinue while crime shows pull big rat­ings. Un­der­belly: A Tale of Two Cities is the high­es­trat­ing Aus­tralian drama ever with more than 2.2 mil­lion view­ers each week. NCIS had more than 1.4 mil­lion view­ers last week, Crim­i­nal Minds more than 1.3 mil­lion and Crime In­ves­ti­ga­tion Aus­tralia and City Homi­cide about 1.2 mil­lion.

When it started in 2005, the Crime & In­ves­ti­ga­tion Net­work was the most suc­cess­ful chan­nel that Fox­tel had launched in five years.

Not only that, 45 per cent of its view­ers were women aged over 40. Nearly 50 per cent of Un­der­belly’s au­di­ence is fe­male.

The pop­u­lar­ity of the genre raises ques­tions about Aus­tralian TV con­tent and the mind­set of view­ers hooked on th­ese shows.

Should the com­mu­nity be con­cerned about so much crime pro­gram­ming? Do th­ese shows glo­rify crime? Why are so many fe­males at­tracted to them? What is the ef­fect of all this on view­ers?

Guide reader Steve, from Al­tona, wrote in Your Say: ‘‘Af­ter watch­ing Un­der­belly, I am struck by how the show as­so­ci­ates crime with loads of money, beau­ti­ful women, par­ty­ing and a life of lux­ury. The crim­i­nals are por­trayed as celebri­ties and are be­com­ing cult fig­ures be­cause of this show.’’

Not a bad ob­ser­va­tion when you con­sider A Cur­rent Af­fair scored rat­ings mileage from Roberta Wil­liams and To­day Tonight from Ju­dith Mo­ran af­ter the first Un­der­belly.

Psy­chol­o­gist Dr Janet Hall says the sheer vol­ume of crime shows on TV th­ese days is un­set­tling.

‘‘We are es­cap­ing to a world where peo­ple break laws and have no so­cial jus­tice,’’ Hall says. ‘‘We are fas­ci­nated by this as a con­cept and how peo­ple can be like that and ex­pect to get away with it.

‘‘The trou­ble with be­ing sat­u­rated with crime TV is that our bound­aries start to blur. Sud­denly things that should be ob­vi­ous no-nos in real life can be jus­ti­fied.’’

A me­dia com­mu­ni­ca­tions com­pany source says some ad­ver­tis­ers don’t want their prod­ucts en­dorsed in times­lots fea­tur­ing crime shows.

‘‘ NCIS, Law and Or­der, CSI, City Homi­cide and Lie to Me tend not to be about crime so much as about the puz­zle be­ing solved. Ad­ver­tis­ers don’t have a prob­lem with the con­tent of th­ese shows,’’ the source says.

‘‘Shows like Un­der­belly and Gangs of Oz . . . they rate well, but they come with high de­grees of vi­o­lence and nu­dity. Th­ese are shows that cer­tain ad­ver­tis­ers would not like to be rep­re­sented in and we would avoid.’’

Clin­i­cal psy­chol­o­gist Dr Leah Giar­ratano re­jects the idea her Be­yond the Dark­lands is ex­ploita­tive. To her, it may do a pub­lic ser­vice.

‘‘Some ar­gue that we watch th­ese shows as a way to try to pro­tect our­selves,’’ she says. ‘‘If you know th­ese peo­ple (vi­o­lent crim­i­nals) ex­ist you might be more aware of it. They’re (view­ers) per­haps not so sus­cep­ti­ble.’’

Law and Or­der: SVU ac­tor Mariska Har­gi­tay is the founder of the Joy­ful Heart Foun­da­tion, which helps vic­tims of sex­ual as­sault, do­mes­tic vi­o­lence and child abuse. Co-star Stephanie March is on the board of direc­tors of Safe Hori­zon, an­other vic­tim-as­sis­tance agency.

‘‘I think we all feel (on SVU) that we have a re­spon­si­bil­ity to be true to the sub­ject (of sex­u­ally re­lated crimes) without be­ing too ex­ploita­tive,’’ March says.

Crime In­ves­ti­ga­tion Aus­tralia host Steve Lieb­mann ad­mits he is sur­prised how many women watch his show, which has re-en­acted the crimes of se­rial killer Ivan Mi­lat and the Anita Cobby mur­der in hor­rific de­tail.

‘‘It in­trigues me,’’ Lieb­mann says. ‘‘I’ve said to women who watch, ‘Isn’t it a bit con­fronta­tional?’ and they say, ‘Oh, we watch all the re-en­act­ments. Half the time we watch them through our fin­gers’.’’

Hall says older women re­mem­ber the events de­picted in such shows as Un­der­belly, Dark­lands and CIA and are fas­ci­nated to see them reen­acted. To her, younger women are in­trigued by how the crim­i­nals lead out­wardly ‘‘nor­mal’’ lives and have fe­male part­ners who know of the crimes, but stick by their men.

‘‘True-crime shows are even more en­tic­ing than fic­tion,’’ she says.

‘‘It’s as though it could have hap­pened to them (fe­male view­ers). We are fas­ci­nated by the vic­tims and how much they en­dure. We think, ‘Thank good­ness that’s not us’ and go to bed and sleep with re­lief.’’

Crime does pay: (clock­wise from top, left) Marg Hel­gen­berger and Lau­rence Fish­burne in CSI: Crime Scene In­ves­ti­ga­tion; Mariska Har­gi­tay in Law & Or­der: SVU; Matt New­ton in Un­der­belly, City Homi­cide’s Shane Bourne; pre­sen­ter Steve Lieb­mann and Leah Giar­ratano.

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