Crime, Television and Public Perceptions: Thoughts on the Fall Line-Up

Published 23, Sep, 2011

As autumn approaches, we are faced once more by the inevitable. Cooling temperatures, the changing colours of the leaves, the approach of Thanksgiving and, of course, the fall television lineup.

. . . and you need not be an avid television watcher to sample the vast array of presumptuously new “gems” or returning favourites. Whether you remain glued to your flatscreen or take in only the casual newscast, you’re likely to be barraged now by snippets from everything from oddly-paired characters in often absurdly amusing situation comedies to talk shows hosted by often obscure or unexpected hosts with strangely compelling credentials.

Yet one of the more interesting aspects of this year’s lineup, and one that seems to have been trending for some time, is the striking number of both new and returning crime-related dramas. Crime, as well as civil disputes, figure prominently in many “reality” shows, and on cable networks in particular. And the public appeal of courtroom debacles such as Judge Judy as well as police chronicles such as Jail or the now defunct, but once hugely popular, Cops are perfect examples.

The more elaborate and scripted crime-related dramas have become a mainstay in the fall schedules of both the cable and mainstream networks -- alongside other “reality” shows, sporting events, and comedies. And while we could rely on the simplistic argument that we watch what the networks force feed us, what of the counterargument that networks may just be feeding us exactly what we’re hungry for?

So l invite you to speculate with me just a little about our preoccupation with criminal offenders, law enforcement and the administration of criminal justice. Why do some of the networks biggest draws such as the CSI franchise or Criminal Minds persist? And why do so many new crime fighters with new and often uncommon crime-fighting capacities continue to emerge?

xstevetv00Indeed, common sense would suggest that crime and criminals are inherently offensive to most -- these are behaviours that are illegal and punishable. Thus there must be more to this. But what exactly? Obviously, I cannot provide a definitive explanation of the complicated relationship between television content and public opinion and behaviour, but at least two things do come immediately to mind.

The first and perhaps most obvious claim I could make is that there is a sufficient and sustained public interest in crime and criminals. But to move beyond the obvious, even a superficial overview of crime-related programming suggests that this public interest isn’t being met or satisfied by simplistic portrayals of misguided and immoral offenders being quickly and easily pursued, captured and tried by legions of noble and moral civil servants.

Indeed, the longstanding stereotypes of “cops” and “robbers” seem to fail miserably by contemporary standards -- so much so that even the lines between the “good guys” and the “bad guys” are themselves often blurred. Clearly, the “good guys” win out more often than not; and, as viewers, we find some solace and satisfaction in this. Still, this seems a woefully incomplete argument.

One possibility that may also seem obvious, but that gets little public attention, is that we have embraced crime and criminality as inevitable realities of society. In other words, while the rationale behind the very existence of the criminal justice system -- the police, the courts and corrections -- is to reduce, if not eliminate crime we have, in fact, come to understand it as more of a constant struggle with which we must live. Crime drama writers certainly seem to understand this “reality” -- consider the dialogue of our front-line crime fighters who wage their never-ending battles on a daily basis. And if this seems reasonable, consider the potential ramifications of such a claim -- that the crime problem is one that simply cannot be solved.

Interestingly, we can take some direction here from communications expert George Gerbner, a pioneer researcher on the effects of television who coined the term “Mean World Syndrome” to describe the effects of violent criminal content in the mass media. More specifically, Gerbner has suggested that people who watch a lot of television tend to think that the world as an “intimidating and unforgiving place.” In other words, without necessarily attributing cause and effect, it seems as if television crime dramas may somehow both breed and reinforce public cynicism about the world in general.


A second point of interest relates directly to the crime-fighting strategies that pervade so many of these compelling programs; and of particular interest here is the field of forensic science that, in the most general sense, involves the application of a broad spectrum of sciences to answer questions of interest in the legal system. As I have already suggested, the crime problem and criminality have emerged as far more complicated matters than many might think. Yet even more interesting is the fact that our crime-fighting abilities are apparently also far more advanced than many of us could have imagined. I expect that many of you have come away from watching even a single episode of CSI somewhat more educated, if not amazed, by the daily operations of virtually any major North American city’s crime lab.

And once again the fall lineup includes an even more impressive range of anti-crime tactics, tools and actors. Consider, for example the central premise of the new CBS drama Unforgettable that, according to the network involves a woman “with a rare condition that makes her memory so flawless that every place, every conversation, every moment is forever embedded in her mind.” On a comparable and familiar note, some of you may remember past crime series that involved similarly exotic crime specialists such as psychics and mediums. By contrast, sophisticated crime labs have become far more commonplace. What then might be the ramifications of increased public interest and confidence in the new “science” of crime fighting?


If Gerbner’s claims are reasonable in that public opinion is indeed skewed by media content, what could we suggest are the effects of this “modernization” of the criminal justice system? One possibility here is the “CSI effect” or “syndrome” that has come to refer to any number of ways that the consistent and often exaggerated portrayal of forensic science in crime dramas may affect public perception and opinion. As such, while crime dramas may create and reaffirm public cynicism about the world, television reliance upon forensics seems to have translated into a somewhat misplaced faith in forensics and forensic evidence. Exactly how and why this faith translates into behaviour remains to be seen; however, there is interesting speculation about its effects upon public demand for forensic evidence in the prosecution of criminal cases -- not to mention the potential consequences for juries and their decisions.

There is so much more that could be said here, and of course there’s an argument to be made for leaving the topic alone altogether. But given the fact that the “effects” of television have been debated so vehemently for years, such speculation about the fall lineup is arguably more than a purely academic exercise.

At the very least, it’s worth considering that many of the new offerings and returning favourites in the fall lineup as more than merely vehicles of entertainment or public education. And given the fact that so many of us have little direct experience especially with serious crime, it’s interesting to think about the relevance of television crime dramas for such things public perceptions that themselves must have some effect upon criminal justice policy.