Emmys: Have Voters Fallen Off the True-Crime Doc Wagon?

Corey Brickley
Illustration by Corey Brickley

Once the darlings of the nonfiction categories, cold-case stories have lost some heat.

A shot rang out!

Echoing around the halls of the Television Academy, it was the sound of the true-crime documentary — once the darling of nonfiction TV voters — taking a bullet to the chest and collapsing in a pool of indifference.

A little cliched, perhaps. But then again, maybe that's why Emmy voters appear to have fallen out of love with true-crime programming. Recent years have seen a glut of articles and trend pieces proclaiming it a golden age for documentaries revisiting gruesome cold cases. And as their numbers and ratings have increased, the TV Academy has rewarded the best of those efforts: In three of the past four years, true-crime stories claimed the Emmy for outstanding documentary or nonfiction series.

In 2015, it was the controversial Robert Durst series The Jinx (two Primetime Emmy wins from six nominations), while the following year it was the Steven Avery-focused international sensation Making a Murderer (four wins from six noms, including prizes for directing, writing and editing). And 2017 brought Emmy noms to the Netflix pair Amanda Knox and The Keepers, along with ESPN's epic, eight-hour, five-part O.J.: Made in America; while 2018 saw the nonfiction series award go to the Netflix cult hit Wild Wild Country.

This year, however, voters seem to have tired of grisly killings, real-life cold cases and unsolved mysteries. While scripted true crime has gained nomination steam in the limited series category (Escape at Dannemora and When They See Us), in the documentary realm, Making a Murderer 2 and new installments of Jean-Xavier de Lestrade's The Staircase failed to score Emmy attention.

Likewise, there was no love for Trey Borzillieri's four-part Evil Genius, Joe Berlinger's Conversations With a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes or The Disappearance of Madeleine McCann, all from Netflix.

So why might voters have gone cold on cold cases? For one thing, the best of such series often take years to make. It's difficult to maintain a high quality and rush them out to meet audience demand at the same time. The original Making a Murderer was filmed over 10 years, resulting in a gasp-inducing series bursting with plot twists. But the second season arrived just a few years later, offering fewer revelations and packing less of a punch.

The same was true for the latest episodes of The Staircase, which first documented Michael Peterson's compelling case back in 2004. Meanwhile, Madeleine McCann was slammed by critics for bringing little new information to a widely documented, high-profile case. Audiences may be insatiable, but Emmy voters are not.

Indeed, looking across the full nominations list, HBO's The Case Against Adnan Syed — a four-part exploration of the murder case made famous by NPR's Serial podcast — is the only true-crime story to gain any traction in the Emmy nonfiction categories (it netted a writing nom).

Adnan Syed director-producer Amy Berg, whose true-crime docs also include 2006's Oscar-nominated Deliver Us From Evil, 2012's West of Memphis and 2015's Prophet's Prey, credits HBO for giving her what she needed to do justice to the story.

"I really wanted to take the time to explore the gray areas and the nuance in this film," Berg says, "and to tell the story of the victim who, often in true-crime-type stories, can get lost in the quest for justice."

The filmmaker originally was given 18 months to make the four-parter, "but the trial kept getting delayed, and I felt that we needed more time," she says. "As a result, we were able to document and investigate much deeper, and I think that's very important, especially with a high-profile story."

So with true crime cooling, what's hot? Aside from wildlife series such as Netflix's Our Planet (10 nominations) and Nat Geo's Hostile Planet (three noms), Emmy voters have this year rewarded documentaries and doc series that held powerful figures to account, with noms for programs centered on Michael Jackson, R. Kelly and Roger Ailes.

In the ongoing battle between the Jackson estate and HBO, voters appear to have sided with the pay TV network, rewarding Leaving Neverland in five categories, including outstanding documentary or nonfiction special and outstanding directing.

The TV Academy also rewarded Lifetime's Surviving R. Kelly (nominated for outstanding informational series or special) and A&E's Divide and Conquer: The Story of Roger Ailes (exceptional merit in documentary filmmaking) — sending a clear message in the wake of the #MeToo movement: Now is the time to hear from survivors.

This story first appeared in an August stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.