Spend a moment watching the news these days and it's obvious; we love our damsel in distress tales. But even I didn't predict 15 million people would show for ABC News latest blockbuster story of a cute, young blonde woman subjected to a horrible crime: top anchor Diane Sawyer's exclusive interview with Jaycee Dugard, who was kidnapped at age 11 and held for 18 years.
It was popular because it fell in doldrums of summer, when there's a lot of reality TV and reruns. And it sums up the zeitgest of the summer. Exhibit A: accused child killer Casey Anthony, whose acquittal inspired a flood of women-in-peril stories across every network and cable channel.
From the beginning, the Casey Anthony story has been a priority for ABC News, which paid her $200,000 for video and pictures years ago. When Anthony was acquitted, ABC News pulled out all the stops: they whisked the first juror willing to speak on camera to Disney World. Celebrity anchor Barbara Walters chatted up her attorney Jose Baez. And now the network has made another move which looks like ABC is trying to corner the market on women in peril stories. They've hired Elizabeth Smart, who was kidnapped at age 14 back in 2002 and found nine months later.
In her first appearance as a contributor on ABC Thursday morning, Smart talked about missing children in general, while also complimenting Dugard for speaking out. But her hiring raises an important question: Is this a signal ABC will cover more women-in-peril stories — crimes that really aren't that common?
For many years, critics have complained about the emphasis news outlets place on crimes which happen to young women — often pretty, often white and usually middle class. It even has a nickname: Missing White Woman Syndrome.
ABC is dipping deep into that well. According to Broadcasting and Cable magazine, the network's evening newscast spent almost 23 minutes covering the aftermath of Anthony's verdict last week, more than double what was on NBC and about four times what was on CBS.
When I talked to ABC spokeswoman Julie Townsend, she insisted the confluence of Smart's hire, the Dugard story and the Casey Anthony coverage was a coincidence. She said, in her words, "These are the kind of stories that are riveting; people want to hear about them from people who have experienced these issues firsthand."
In today's landscape of morning newscasts and true-crime network TV newsmagazines, such women-in-peril stories have turned crime news into melodramatic, real-life soap operas.
And just like on the best soaps, it doesn't matter if the woman at the heart of the tale is a heroine or a villain, as long as her story is so frightening and compelling people can't stop watching.
Eric Deggans is the TV and media critic for the St. Petersburg Times.