Crime out of control
Free-to-air television is offering 25 crime shows each week, write Colin Vickery and Darren Devlyn
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.