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Akst: Help like this we don’t need

Published: Friday, March 15, 2013 5:30 a.m. CDT

I didn’t plan to watch the “48 Hours” episode about the murder of Maria Ridulph in 1957.

On Saturday evening, the TV was on while my wife and I graded papers. We should’ve listened to classical music instead; Mozart makes one smarter.

Then “Cold As Ice” began, and once we saw Sycamore streets and realized it was that episode, it was like driving past a car crash.

I understand why Charles Ridulph (Maria’s brother) told the Daily Chronicle the show disappointed the family. I shared some of his concerns, and had my own concerns, too.

The broadcast featured spooky piano notes and sound effects, theatrically timed questions and responses, cliffhanger commercial breaks and moody special effects like desaturating the color to suggest the past.

In other words, the sure signs of a … news program?

Yes, a popular one. Besides prime-time entertainment and reality TV, the “true crime” genre is a major source of viewers and advertisers.

This is infotainment, which helpfully defines as “television shows, movies, websites, and software that blend information and entertainment together. … Certain news broadcasts can also be considered infotainment, since they strive to be as entertaining as they are informational.”

A USA Today article in June called “48 Hours Mystery” the “grand dame of all true-crime shows.” It averaged nearly 6 million viewers, ranking only behind “60 Minutes” as the most-watched newsmagazine in prime time.

Indeed, “Cold As Ice” was Saturday’s No. 1 program in both viewers and households, according to Nielsen live plus same-day ratings for March 9. The website TVBytheNumbers said the show was first in adults age 25 to 54, “the demographic most important to those who advertise in news,” as well as adults 18 to 49, and households.

The Daily Chronicle story said the Nielsen live plus same-day ratings showed about 5.46 million viewers tuned in.

The data worry me, because they strongly suggest that TV networks are increasingly looking at true crime for viewers and advertisers. The USA Today article, for example, described the Investigation Discovery cable network being an up-and-comer, and quoted ID’s president, Henry Schleiff.

“True crime is an incredibly fertile area for us to have mined,” Schleiff said. “Not only are we the single home for the genre 24/7, but even more important, it’s all real. People may be a little jaded with fictional crime shows, but the idea that we can remind people of a set of facts that are so extraordinary, so compelling, so chilling is a very unique selling proposition.”

Hmm. The journalists I know try to avoid chronicling life as “selling propositions.” Similarly, journalism books, websites and educators are careful to caution beginning journalists about pimping out the misfortune of others.

We’re not above feeling a news rush, but journalism doesn’t need help like this. Society doesn’t need help like this either. What does it say about us that selling ads based on real tragedies is good business?

• • •

1. If I ever write “Do the math,” it’s a cry for help. I made a stupid math error in last week’s column. In calculating snow in cubic feet, I didn’t convert the snowfall from inches (9) to feet (0.75). I apologize.

2. Today is the Ides of March. The soothsayer in “Julius Caesar” warned Caesar to beware today. Caesar could’ve taken the day off, but he was ambitious. Look where that got him. My advice: Organize your sock drawer and call it a day.

• Jason Akst teaches journalism and public relations at Northern Illinois University. You can reach him at

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