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ALL CRIME ALL THE TIME
Until a few years ago, Oxygen was a cable TV channel that targeted a young, female demographic with forgettable high-drama shows with names like Last Squad Standing and Bad Girls Club. According to network executives, the millennial women they were hoping to capture craved “freshness” and “authenticity,” “high emotional stakes and optimism.” It didn’t take long for the executives to figure out that what young women actually wanted was more shows about murder. When the struggling network began airing a dedicated true crime block in 2015, viewership increased by 42 percent. In 2017, the network rebranded and adopted revised programming priorities: all crime, all the time.
Viewership skyrocketed; Oxygen had tapped into something big. For the past few years, as the US murder rate has approached historic lows, stories about murder have become culturally ascendant. The crime minded among us were inundated with content, whether our tastes tended toward high-end HBO documentaries interrogating the justice system or something more like Investigation Discovery’s Swamp Murders. (Or, as was often the case, both. True crime tends to scramble traditional high/low categorizations.) Shops popped up on Etsy selling enamel pins of Ted Bundy’s Volkswagen Beetle and iPhone cases depicting Jeffrey Dahmer’s face. There were approximately a million new podcasts, and they all had something to investigate.
In 2018, Oxygen hosted its second annual fan convention—CrimeCon—in Nashville’s Marriott Opryland hotel. The Opryland, as I was proudly told at check-in, was the second-biggest noncasino hotel in the world. You know that American tendency to equate bigness with luxury and plenitude with worth? The Opryland was that, in hotel form. There was lush indoor landscaping and fountains that erupted in elaborately choreographed spurts and infinite snack options you could charge to your room. You could eat a dinner at a steakhouse housed inside a replica of an antebellum mansion. For $10, you could ride a boat down the quarter-mile-long river that flowed through one of the hotel’s atriums; the water, I was told, included a drop from every river in the world.
The week before CrimeCon, the Opryland had welcomed a group of cement salespeople, and the week after it would host a convention of international-supply-chain managers, but for these three days in May, it was full of young women wearing T-shirts that said things like BASICALLY A DETECTIVE and DNA OR IT DIDN’T HAPPEN and I’M JUST HERE TO ESTABLISH AN ALIBI.
On day one of CrimeCon, I found a seat in the ballroom among a couple of thousand women and a smattering of men. The sound system blasted cheery pop music as the screens flanking the stage scrolled through a slideshow of crime-related images—mug shots and yellow police tape and close-ups of alarming, contextless headlines: “Man Accused of Stabbing Mother,” “Deadly Stabbing Suspect Arrested,” “Four People Shot.”
Oxygen shows feature a stable of authoritative crime experts, mostly men with handsome-haggard faces and law enforcement experience. They’re real people, but they always seem half in character, as if they were playing a beloved but slightly remote and overprotective father on a network drama. There seemed to be at least one of them on every true crime show, these inexplicably sexy cop-dads. One of them, former FBI profiler Jim Clemente, wearing a cowboy hat, strolled out onto the stage to a round of huge cheers. CrimeCon had officially begun.