Study: TV's Newest Obsession Is Serial Killers

"The Following's" Kevin Bacon
"The Following's" Kevin Bacon
 FOX

In the wake of mass killings at Sandy Hook elementary school, a movie theater in Colorado and the Boston Marathon, some have sought to blame -- partially or in full -- the glorified violence on film and television. Seeking to add momentum to that theory is an analysis due out shortly that ridicules TV’s latest obsession: serial killers.

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The analysis, obtained exclusively by The Hollywood Reporter on Friday, says that seven new shows glamorizing serial killers were added at networks this season, bringing the total to 20.

The analysis also quotes Hollywood insiders either defending or criticizing their own product, and it cites instances where real-life murderers said their crimes were inspired by TV shows, linking to news stories in each case. Showtime’s Dexter, a show about a serial killer who kills serial killers and which will ends its eight-season run this year, comes under particular scrutiny.

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Besides linking to a Dexter kill list that enumerates 125 gruesome deaths, the study says “at least three brutal murders and one attempted murder have been inspired by the show.” In each case, the study includes a quote from the real-life murderer. Example: “I made a few attempts to chop her up like Dexter with Masters power tools but I was afraid it was too loud and it sucked at cutting flesh … I thought … it would be simple, like Dexter,” said a San Diego woman who confessed that Dexter showed her how to murder and mutilate a woman in 2012.

The analysis also excoriates The Following, a Fox show where Kevin Bacon plays an FBI agent on the trail of a serial killer portrayed by James Purefoy; Bates Motel, an A&E series that is a modern-day prequel to Alfred Hitchcock’s film Psycho; and Hannibal, an NBC series based on the Hannibal Lecter character, the brilliant cannibal featured in the best picture Oscar winner The Silence of the Lambs and its follow-ups.

The analysis makes the point that executives like to claim that TV only reflects the violence in society and doesn’t encourage it, and quotes CBS president Nina Tassler, NBC Entertainment chairman Robert Greenblatt and Fox chairman of entertainment Kevin Reilly defending their violent programming. But the study attempts to debunk their assertions with the following observation:

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“Meanwhile, the media can admit that they do influence society if it’s for one of their pet causes. Hollywood and news media gush about the positive portrayals of gays on television and that has increased approval ratings of homosexuality among youth." The analysis links to a scientific poll conducted by The Hollywood Reporter indicating that 27 percent of viewers say that shows like Modern Family and Glee made them more pro-gay marriage.

“Hollywood is taking a victory lap on same-sex marriage, but will they take responsibility for 20 shows about serial killers next time some lunatic kills a dozen people at a school?” asks Dan Gainor, vice president of the Culture and Media Institute, which authored the analysis. “No, they won’t, because they’re not that honest.”

Still, the analysis identifies some in Hollywood who have spoken out against violence -- in some cases that depicted in their own TV shows.

Mandy Patinkin, for example, said that joining the cast of Criminal Minds on CBS was “the biggest public mistake I ever made." He called the show’s violent content “disturbing to my soul,” and added: “Audiences all over the world use this programming as their bedtime story. This isn’t what you need to be dreaming about.”

The analysis says that Criminal Minds alone has featured more than 100 serial killers in the past seven seasons, whereas the FBI estimates that there are 35 to 50 real serial killers operating in the U.S.

Gainor called the addition of seven shows about serial killers “a major trend."  When additions and cancelations are factored together, viewers can expect to be treated to at least 35 percent more shows about serial killers this year compared with last year.

“Television is a copycat medium,” he said. “What happens first on cable migrates to broadcast TV. Everyone is trying to capture that Dexter audience.”

The seven new shows about serial killers, says Gainor, are Hannibal, Bates Motel, The Cult, The Bridge, Ripper Street, The Following and The Fall.

The Culture and Media Institute is a division of Brent Bozell's Media Research Center, a conservative watchdog group.

E-mail: Paul.Bond@THR.com

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