Netflix’s “Making a Murderer,” Cutting the Cord and Docu-Series Production Budgets

Like the majority of Hollywood, many of us spent our holiday vacations binge-watching Netflix’s newest original show “Making a Murderer.” Netflix has already earned a well-deserved reputation for delivering cutting-edge programming with the likes of watercooler shows including “House of Cards” and “Orange is the New Black,” and it appears as though the streaming giant’s first foray into original non-scripted docuseries is no exception. The addicting ten-part crime documentary series examines the trial of Steven Avery, a Wisconsin man believed to be framed by police for a 2005 murder, and has generated a wealth of buzz, including praise for highlighting the grim failings of our criminal justice system.

“Making a Murderer” is only the latest in a new wave of true crime series beginning to revitalize the genre. The overwhelming response to the show recalls the recent successes of similar series such as HBO’s “The Jinx” and the highly popular “Serial” podcast. There are a variety of reasons for this sudden cult-like interest in real life crime stories, including the rise of nontraditional media. Not too long ago, these types of stories were hastily squeezed into one-hour time slots by PBS and Primetime NewsMagazine programs like “Dateline,” “48 Hours” and “20/20.” However, today’s television landscape has undergone a notable shift towards streaming, which has drastically altered the way that countless viewers consume content (one in five television consumers have “cut the cord” according to Pew Research Center). The practice of Netflix and other streaming platforms, such as HBO Now, to release all episodes at once is a perfect fit for the in-depth, long-form storytelling format best-suited for covering the complex arc of a criminal trial or investigation. The widespread success of “Making a Murderer” will only serve to encourage other docuseries filmmakers to sell their projects to other, more relevant outlets.

Another important factor that plays into the increasing number of true crime docu-series is the significantly lower production costs for these types of projects. Reality programming, including documentaries, require a fraction of the production budget compared to that a scripted TV drama, such as Amazon Prime’s well-received “Bosch.” The low production aspects of “Making a Murderer” are obvious at times but, at others, the show uses live courtroom footage (obtained mostly by directors Laura Ricciardi and Moira Demos) to avoid poor-quality reenactments reiminiscent of past docuseries produced cable TV crime dramas. The story itself, which was developed over ten years, is perfect for an American society surrounded by crime and murder, and doesn’t necessarily need the over-the-top special effects that drive movies with stories that fail to compel.

With the winning combination of high audience demand and low budgets, and thus lower acquisition costs, it’s likely that online content distributors, such as Netflix, HBO Now and Showtime Anytime, will seek out crime-oriented docu-series that can generate buzz, such as “Making a Murderer,” to attract subscribers and increase brand equity in an extremely competitive landscape.