TV News Aims to Solve Digital Mystery: Can True Crime Shows Thrive on TikTok?

TV news executives are trying to solve a new mystery: Can some of their true-crime warhorses find new life on TikTok?

At CBS News, executives believe the answer is “yes.” CBS News’ TikTok account for “48 Hours” in December surpassed 1 million followers, after launching in May of 2021. NBC’s “Dateline” has more than 600,000, while ABC’s “20/20” doesn’t’ operate an account at present. The view from CBS News is that clips on TikTok push a younger cohort to seek out the show, which is available not only on Saturday nights but also on cable and via streaming services such as Pluto and Paramount+.

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“I think TikTok is this creative marketing tool that helps us with our brand expansion,” says Judy Tygard, the series’ executive producer. Younger viewers “aren’t watching us on the big TV networks. They can see us on YouTube, on Paramount+, on Pluto, whatever space they are in.”

The broadcast networks’ true-crime programs are miniature content empires. NBC News has used “Dateline” as the basis for the creation of several podcasts, and even a scripted series that starred Renee Zellweger. ABC News’ two-hour-long “20/20” broadcasts have increasingly become a staple on Hulu.
What’s not clear yet is whether TikTok activity can be easily monetized. CBS News has devoted a three-person team to creating “48 Hours” TikTok clips, some of which might be three to six minutes in length – an eternity on the short-form video service.

Putting the same promos on the venue as they might on Facebook or the CBS broadcast network won’t help, says Christina Capatides, vice president of social media and trending content for CBS News. On TikTok, she says, “traditional promos are very quickly seen as inauthentic. They are not made for that platform, People gloss over them ,and often hate on them in the comments,” she says, ‘You have to have actual content that informs the viewer when they want it.”

The social-media team typically meets with “48 Hours” producers to identify the most engaging elements of a new case and to ensure nothing in the TikTok vignettes is off tone. “It’s a tightrope,” says Tygard. “These are real people. You cannot be too flip.”

There’s no single method for zeroing in on TikTok users, and producers may try an array of concepts. “Usually, they will do two different slices,” says Capatides. “There could be a victim profile, who they were, and there could be another that is evidence-based or trial-based, or what happened on the night of the crime.” The goal, she says is to “engage the armchair detectives on TikTok.”

Even if there’s no immediate revenue from such efforts, they probably need to be made. According to Capatides, 80% of “”48 Hours” TikTok users are under 44. That requires “a really involved strategy to capture the next generation of true crime fans,” she says.

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