What You’ve Been Dying to Know
How did Forensic Files become the I Love Lucy of true-crime shows — with reruns on every day, everywhere from Montreal to Melbourne? The half-hour series has been compelling fans to procrastinate on their housework and homework and gym schedules for two decades.
Since starting this blog last year, I’ve used it to answer lingering questions about specific Forensic Files episodes. With this post, I hope to solve some mysteries about the series as a whole.
Executive producer Paul Dowling, whose Medstar Television made all 400 episodes, allowed me to interrogate him during a 2017 phone call:
Forensic Files is shown in 142 countries — why are overseas viewers so interested in U.S. crimes? In many countries, cases aren’t covered in the media the way they are here.
Often the laws are different from American laws. In Great Britain, there is confidentiality until the case is decided. The crime files aren’t open the way they can be in the U.S. Same thing in Canada — you don’t learn about someone being arrested for rape or murder before the case is decided. And if he’s exonerated, you never know about it.
That can give people in other countries the wrong idea about the U.S. Brazil has a murder rate 3x higher than ours. Everyone has guns except for innocent law-abiding people, and when bad guys come to the door, they can’t defend themselves. And then they see American television and think the crime rate is much higher in the U.S.
There was a rape and murder in Brazil in front of 12 people and no one testified. People in Brazil asked me whether I’m afraid to walk the streets in the U.S. I said no, I’m afraid here.
When I was in Paris, I was told to dress like a bum [to prevent robbery].
How do you pack the whole story into 30-minute episodes? We have 22 minutes. It’s like a Broadway musical: Every line of that song has to move the story along.
As you are creating the story, you don’t think, “How will I write this?” You think, “How will I say this?”
You can tell a lot with the pictures you use. If we show a girl holding a fish [that she caught], it says something about who she was.
For every story we did, all 400, before the show aired, I sat down with three people and told them the story. It enabled me to see how the story worked. If their eyes glazed over, I knew the story was going too slowly.
It’s like campfire storytelling — if you want to keep boys and girls awake, you have to tell a good story.
How is it contending with the pressure for Nielsen ratings? Imagine you’re doing a Broadway musical and, at any moment, the audience can stay right in their same seats and have their choice of switching to 500 other musicals.
TV producers are not evaluated on the value of their show — or how many people watch it. They are evaluated on how many viewers watch the ads during breaks.
You have to have a show that people are emotionally tied to so that they are afraid to get up.
How do you keep viewers in their seats? When I started the show on TLC in 1996, they wanted us to use teasers. I said no: The show should provide the incentive for viewers to come back. Toward the end of Jeopardy, when they come back from the break, Alex goes right into the Final Jeopardy question — there’s no recap. People don’t want to miss that question.
Viewers of Forensic Files want to know who killed that guy. That’s why you can’t open the show with any hint of who did it.
When we interviewed a killer on camera, we would go to the prison with our own [street] clothes for him to wear. That way, viewers don’t know yet that he did it.
We also use the passive tense in scripts, even though writers are taught not to in school. The passive tense lets you put information out there without saying who did it.
And we also don’t use big fancy words if there’s no need. A screenwriter had me look at a script once, and I said, “What does this word mean? I have two college degrees and I don’t know.” If you were at a picnic or dinner party and someone used that word, how would it make you feel?
Why do you interview the murder victims’ mothers and fathers separately — even if they’re still married? If you have two dogs in the house, there’s always one dominant one. Likewise, sometimes people say things in front of you they wouldn’t say in front of their spouse. There are interview tricks that work with one person but not two at the same time. People are often uncomfortable with silences, so sometimes they’ll blurt out something they wouldn’t [with a spouse present].
A lot of true-crime series show victims’ family members in tears. Why doesn’t Forensic Files?
Because it’s manipulative. There are techniques TV producers use to make a person cry. And the viewer feels sorry for the person and gets mad at the TV show for subjecting that person to heartache.
And oftentimes it’s a year or more after the crime, so people are more composed.
We give murder victims’ families a cleaned-up version of the episode they’re in.
You mean a version without graphic footage of wounds, autopsies, etc.? Yes, we tell them that this is the version they’ll want to watch and show their friends.
You recently tweeted that your dog Chloe had passed away at age 15. How was she involved in the show? She used to come in the editing room with us, next to the editor. I was working so hard that I wasn’t home a lot, and my kids would come in with sleeping bags and pizza and the dog would eat pizza behind our backs.
Chloe was here when we did reenactments with German Sherpherd-style attack dogs. She started running in circles and getting bent out of shape.
So you used real dogs and cats in the reenactments? Yes, and we had a trained squirrel and homing pigeons and a kangaroo once.
What about reenactments of vehicular accidents — did you use stock footage? No. Every crash you see on Forensic Files is something we created. We did a show about boat crashes, and we bought boats. We use cars that are the same model and color [as those in the real accidents]. Some movies edit crashes and fast-forward to a stock shot of the outcome. Forensic Files shows crashes without an edit.
With crashes, you can’t have gasoline in the cars — you don’t want explosions. So sometimes you have motorized pushers. But you have to be fair as far as the speeds used, so a defense attorney doesn’t come back and say to you, “Hey, the real crash was 30 mph, but the show’s was 70 mph.”
Doesn’t all that make accident reenactions awfully expensive? Yes, but there was never a budget limit for re-creations. I never wanted anyone to be hurt in an accident re-creation and to have the director say afterward, “Well, I only had $50,000.”
Were there any episodes that chilled you to the bone, that you couldn’t forget after you went home? Yes, if we hadn’t done one particular episode, three people would be in prison for something they didn’t do. It was for the Norfolk rape and killing of Michelle Moore-Bosko in 1997, and these three people didn’t do it. Someone else confessed to the crime, and the prosecutor wouldn’t act.
Tim Kaine was governor of Virginia then, and he saw the episode [“Eight Men Out,” 2001] and had the state police reinvestigate.
I read that “Bad Blood” — the story of a woman raped by a doctor (John Schneeberger) while she was unconscious — was your favorite episode of Forensic Files. Why? If a forensic hall of fame existed, that victim would belong in it.
The doctor’s DNA didn’t match the rapist’s. The victim was sure the hospital was being paid off to throw the tests or something. So she broke into the doctor’s things and got his Chapstick. She paid for a DNA test with her own money, and it matched the DNA from the rape.
It turned out the doctor had implanted a plastic tube into his arm with somebody else’s blood and was having that blood tested.
The doctor’s wife had been saying on TV that this woman was a slut. And then the wife’s daughter from another marriage who lived with them told her mother that the stepdad [Schneeberger] had been drugging and raping her.
After talking to various people who watch Forensic Files, I haven’t really been able to identify a demographic pattern. Have you? One thing we know is that a lot of women watch the show for safety reasons — knowledge of safety they can pass along to their daughters.
Can you share any safety tips? We don’t get into victim-shaming, but we do show things that the victims shouldn’t have done regarding situational awareness.
Some girls and women don’t know that there are predators at bars and clubs casing them out. A predator will watch for things like two women walking in together late. He knows that later in the evening they will have parked farther away. So when they’re ready to leave, if one stays and the other goes out to get the car and drive it around, the predator will follow her out to the car.
I tell my daughter and her friends what the FBI says: When you go to your car, have your keys in your hand. If someone with a gun comes up and says to get in the car, throw your keys and purse in one direction and run in the other. The bad guy isn’t expecting this, so he thinks, “I can get the money and car instead of going after her.”♣
Update: Read about the life and times of Forensic Files narrator Peter Thomas.