April 24, 2024

Best Practices for Researching and Selling a True Crime Series

Shiv Rajagopal
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The allure of true crime has captured audiences worldwide, and as a result, the genre has taken over the unscripted TV market. With such high demand, producers might wonder how to create and sell a true crime series to a network.

If you ask an unscripted producer, they will tell you that it is not an open-and-shut case. Creating this type of content can be complex, so you might be wondering how to research a true crime series. 

To help guide your journey, we sat down with Jeff Turner of 44 Blue Productions to discuss how to research and pitch a true crime series to a network. 

Meet Jeff Turner

Jeff Turner is the VP of Production and Operations at 44 Blue Productions, a renowned production company in the unscripted space. With over three decades of experience, he is a veteran of the unscripted industry.

As an executive, Turner has overseen countless unscripted shows, including Wahlburgers, First Responders Live, Jailbirds, The Real Murders of Orange County, and many more. Let’s dive into his advice for how to research a true crime series. 

The first steps

Let’s say you've discovered a great story that you think has the potential to become a true crime series. The first step is to find a unique selling point, which will be the bedrock of your true crime show.

When it comes to finding a unique selling point, Turner states,

“The first thing that seems important is access.”

Interviews are a staple for unscripted true crime shows, so gaining access to the right people can be a major selling point when pitching to a network. 

During this phase, you must also determine whether the story should be depicted as a limited or regular series. 

A limited series traditionally focuses on one particular crime story and explores it over the course of a season. On the other hand, a series can range from 10 to 15 episodes and features a new crime story in each episode. All the episodes are tied together by a unifying theme. 

If you are leaning towards creating a series, consider the overall theme of the true crime series. For example, Turner recounts how 44 Blue produced a series called Twisted Sisters with stories of sisters who were related to the crime or the murder.

When pitching a series, finding this overarching theme is vital as it will be the unique selling point of your show. 

Determine the viability of the idea

Once producers have a great story and unique selling point, they must determine the idea's viability. To create a true crime show, the underlying crime story must have multiple layers and interesting characters. Turner explains,

“You want to be able to tell [...] a multidimensional story. [..] You got to have red herrings. It can’t be cut and dry; it has to be an intriguing story.” 

To evaluate the viability of your idea, examine who committed the crime and why. Talk to all the potential characters involved and develop multiple storylines. A true crime show needs a multi-faceted story to succeed.

Draw up a list of interviewees

As mentioned above, access to the story is critical. A great story is worthless if you cannot get in touch and interview people related to the victim or the crime.

Work with researchers and casting directors to contact any individuals involved in the case, even if you don’t have the resources or budget to interview them before pitching. Having the victim’s family shows the network that you have their blessing and access to tell the story. 

You could also reach out to friends and colleagues who were close to the victim to help develop the story. Other potential interviewees can include police officers, lawyers, and journalists who have knowledge of the crime.

Researching and Selling a True Crime Series - Wrapbook - Interviewing
Be patient and respectful when reaching out to potential interviewees.

True crime stories are often a sensitive point for those directly involved. When you do get in touch with them, be authentic and highlight that you want to shed light on the victim’s side of the story. Turner advises, 

“Sensitive, not pushy outreach. And then when you get them on the line, just really honor them, honor their time, and honor the victim.”

Once you have built a rapport with the interviewees, consider the best time to sign contracts to avoid legal issues during production and release. Though not necessary to have a contract signed when pitching to a network, you should be confident that you’ll be able to obtain them.

Pitching a true crime series you cannot deliver can ruin your relationship with the network. Do the proper due diligence and only pitch the stories you know you can produce as promised. 

Legal considerations

When it comes to true crime shows, there are two different types of stories: adjudicated and non-adjudicated. Adjudicated stories refer to crimes for which the legal proceedings have already been completed. Non-adjudicated stories refer to crimes that do not have a final judgment or court ruling. Turner notes,

“Adjudicated stories are much easier to tell because you have the whole story, and legally, it's much easier because it's a fact. If it's not adjudicated and you start pointing the finger at somebody, you open yourself up to a lot of liability.”

Knowing the legal parameters surrounding the case is essential to protecting yourself and the production company from lawsuits. Depending on the details of the case, you may have to be very specific and present only facts. Therefore, it is best practice to hire a legal team to examine the story prior to pitching.

Researching and Selling a True Crime Series - Wrapbook - Signing Paperwork
Hiring and working with a legal team will protect you from potential lawsuits.

If possible, obtain FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) documents relevant to the case. Turner emphasizes,

“Attorneys and networks will not let you tell a story until you have the police records and all the legal documents to support those facts.”

Once the legal team has reviewed and approved the story, you can begin preparing your pitch for the network. 

Put together your pitch

To greenlight a true crime series, the network will want to see a pitch deck that details your vision and creative approach. 

A pitch deck should summarize the story and the main characters involved. It should have three or four pages about the story, the murder, how it happened, and the potential murderers.

It should also highlight which characters you have access to and all the legal documents pertinent to the case. Producers pitching a true crime series for the first time should have a fully buttoned-up pitch deck to make a good first impression on the network. 

It goes without saying that a pitch deck must also be visually captivating. Luckily, Wrapbook has a ready-to-use pitch deck template to get you started!

Decide who to target with your idea

It’s also vital to know exactly which network to pitch to. TLC, the home of 90 Day Fiancé, might not be the best home for a true crime series. Don’t waste time and energy on ill-fitting partnerships.

Researching and Selling a True Crime Series - Wrapbook - Streaming
There are numerous networks interested in the unscripted market. Do your research and plan accordingly.

Instead, research the unscripted market and determine what type of genres to which each network caters. Then, target the networks or streaming services with a history of distributing true crime shows. A company like Netflix, which produced Making a Murderer and Night Stalker: The Hunt for a Serial Killer, may likely be a better fit than TLC.

Follow up and keep moving forward

While pitching, manage your expectations. Don’t expect a “yes” in the room. Networks usually need to do their own due diligence. In some cases, there might even be a crossover period. This refers to when the network asks a producer to do more research and come back with more story options. 

Pitching as a new unscripted producer will be difficult because you must break into the industry. But selling true crime shows will get easier as time goes on. Once you have a working relationship with the network's executives, you can pitch more casually and ask for their input before committing to a lengthy and expensive research phase. 

Turner also highlights the importance of building off that relationship with the network.

The goal of a pitch is to get the true crime series greenlit, but producers should also aim to build a long-standing relationship with a network. Being established in the unscripted industry, Turner notes,

“Some of the networks come to us with ideas saying work this up.”

Don’t hold a grudge if the network initially says no to the pitch. Follow up and always keep the door open for a potential partnership. Keep pitching and reaching out to other potential buyers. There is more than one network with their eyes on the unscripted market

Use each pitching opportunity to learn and improve your pitch for the next opportunity. 

Final thoughts

As parting advice, Turner mentions, 

“Be authentic. Don’t be exploitative. It’s all about authenticity and integrity. Don’t sell your soul to make a story.”

While the final product is for entertainment, you want to create a show that honors the victim and their families. That’s the core of making a great unscripted true crime show. 

Wrapping up

44 Blue Productions is a powerhouse in the unscripted space and we want to thank Jeff Turner for sharing his valuable insights with us. We hope his advice will serve as a jumping off point for producers interested in the true crime genre. 

Remember, creating a true crime series requires authenticity, thorough research, and patience. 

Ready to jump into unscripted production? Learn how Wrapbook can streamline your production accounting. To learn more about producing unscripted reality television, check out our conversation with producer Irad Eyal.

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Last Updated 
April 24, 2024


At Wrapbook, we pride ourselves on providing outstanding free resources to producers and their crews, but this post is for informational purposes only as of the date above. The content on our website is not intended to provide and should not be relied on for legal, accounting, or tax advice.  You should consult with your own legal, accounting, or tax advisors to determine how this general information may apply to your specific circumstances.

About the author
Shiv Rajagopal

Shiv Rajagopal is a filmmaker based out of Hong Kong & Los Angeles. With a background as a producer of indie films, music videos, and commercials, he writes about the entertainment industry at large. He is also the Co-Founder of Forgotten Films, an indie film company with a slate of films revolving around superheroes from the golden age of comics.

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