On any given night, Americans are glued to their TV sets to watch the good guys trying to catch the bad ones.
On Sunday night, there's CBS's Cold Case, where detectives solve crimes from the past and on Monday's, there is NBC's Medium, a series in which a soccer mom/psychic helps the district attorney with local murders and abductions. And just about every other night of the week, there is some version of CBS's Crime Scene Investigation (CSI), where savvy investigators use high-tech forensics, such as DNA profiling, to solve cases, or NBC's Law and Order and its various spin-offs.
Move Over Reality TV
It seems that these days such crime dramas are the new must-see TV. The new spate of crime shows are now giving TiVos and digital video recording devices a workout as millions of Americans can't seem to get enough. But why are we so sucked in to these shows?
"When I was young, we had cowboys and Indians and white hats and black hats to separate the good guys and bad guys," says Los Angeles-based psychotherapist Robert Butterworth, PhD. "In a sense, [the new spate of crime shows] are souped-up versions of morality plays because bad guys get caught by good guys and its done in combination with contemporary science." Developed in the late 14th century and flourishing throughout the 16th century, morality plays typically comprise personifications of good and evil as they struggle for a man's soul.
With threats of terrorism and natural disasters like Hurricane Katrina and Rita, "people are anxious in an uncertain world and today they may get the message that bad guys do win and these shows show that they don't," says Butterworth. "Modern technology makes it so crime doesn't pay and that is the ultimate premise -- 'we will get you, and we will use whatever tools we have to get you,'" he says.
Take Cold Case, for example. In this show, the detectives spend their time solving cases that have occurred months, years, or decades ago. The message here is that "time passes and that doesn't mean that you're off the hook," he says.
Too Bad Life Doesn't Mimic TV
But sometimes fantasy may interfere with reality, he says. The reality is that not all crimes are solved or solvable. "Viewers can mistakenly be under the assumption that [cops] always solve the crime and can start to think 'gee what happened with me?'" he says. "On one hand, these shows can be deterrents, but on the other hand, viewers may get a false perception."
Take the case of Natalee Holloway, an 18-year-old honors student who disappeared on a class trip to Aruba on May, 30, 2005. If this was the subject of a television show, this crime would have been solved in under an hour, but as of now, Aruban investigators don't seem any closer to finding out what happened to Holloway, much to her family's frustration.
"These shows may give criminals the sense that crime doesn't pay, and they may give us the false sense that every crime will be solved because we have the high-tech means to do it," Butterworth explains.
True Crime author Ann Rule, who has her own theory on the popularity of these shows. "I know people read true crime books because they are fascinated with human behavior," says Rule, a former Seattle policewoman and author of many books including the now infamous The Stranger Beside Me, about serial killer Ted Bundy. "My readers are very gentle people who want to know why anyone would grow up to be a killer and what made them that way?" says Rule, the author of the soon-to-be-released Worth More Dead.
People are also interested in forensic science, she says. "I have caught a few minutes of CSI here and there and kind of laughed because they use forensic techniques in some cases that have yet to be invented, even though the real advances in DNA, hair and fiber matching, automated fingerprint scanning on computers are exciting and rewarding."
In its simplest terms, DNA or genetic material is present in all kinds of evidence collected at the crime scene (think blood, hair, skin, saliva, and semen.) Scientists can analyze the DNA in evidence samples to see if it matches a suspect's DNA.
Still, "some people like to be shocked, I'm afraid, and there are some fairly grotesque "mock-ups" of body scenes on these shows," she says. "Let's face it, detective work is far removed from most ordinary lives and can be mysterious and exciting and television detectives are usually quite attractive," she says.
And there's more, "we always want to see good guys win, and that is certainly part of it."
This is enough for some viewers such as Angela Costa, a public relations executive in Mountain View, Calif. "My boyfriend and I are avid watchers of the CSI series," she tells WebMD. " I think it does have something to do with seeing people get caught for their crimes when so many in reality get away with murder, literally," she says.
Crime TV Is Must-See TV
"For most people the fascination with crime shows is benign," says Jack Levin, PhD, the director of the Brudnick Center on Violence and Conflict at Northeastern University in Boston, and the author of several books including Extreme Killings. "Viewers actually escape from the real problems of everyday life into murder whether on Law and Order or CSI."
A second source of fascination can be negative, he adds. "Many people watch to learn more about how they can avoid being victims," he tells WebMD. "They may have been victims in the past or may believe that they are vulnerable, so that they watch to learn," he says.
"A lot of fascination has to do with the growing use of physical evidence especially DNA to solve crimes," he says. "It gives the average viewer false information about how cases are solved because very few are solved this way," he says. "On CSI, there is always fingerprint evidence and facial reconstruction and detectives can establish time of death in 15 minutes," he says. "I think it makes people feel safer to think that it's scientific and that's very appealing to people especially those who are concerned about their personal safety," he says.