ABC News Leads The Way In A Long Summer Of Women-In-Peril Stories

Originally published on July 19, 2011 10:23 am

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.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

MICHELE NORRIS, Host:

You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

TV: women at the center of infamous crimes. One reason, these stories have brought big ratings, particularly for ABC News. In fact, the network got such strong numbers from an interview with rape and kidnap victim Jaycee Dugard that it re-ran her story over the weekend.

TV critic Eric Deggans isn't sure what to make of this current obsession with women in peril.

ERIC DEGGANS: Spend a moment watching the news these days, and it's obvious: We love our damsel-in-distress tales.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SPECIAL, "JAYCEE DUGARD: HER FIRST INTERVIEW")

DIANE SAWYER: She was a little girl with a name right out of a storybook...

DEGGANS: But even I didn't predict nearly 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.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SPECIAL, "JAYCEE DUGARD: HER FIRST INTERVIEW")

SAWYER: A convicted sex offender let out of prison kidnapped her...

DEGGANS: It was popular because it was a big story delivered in the doldrums of summer, when there's a lot of reality TV and reruns, and it sums up the zeitgeist of the moment. Exhibit A: accused child killer Casey Anthony, whose acquittal inspired a flood of women-in-peril stories across every network and cable channel.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "NIGHTLINE")

TERRY MORAN: "The Casey Anthony Story," a special edition of primetime "Nightline," starts now.

DEGGANS: 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.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "NIGHTLINE")

MORAN: Casey Anthony. We dedicated our entire show tonight to a court case...

DEGGANS: 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.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "GOOD MORNING AMERICA")

Unidentified Man: For nine months, she had to endure daily sexual assaults.

ROBIN ROBERTS: Smart was just 14 years old at the time...

DEGGANS: In her first paid appearance as a contributor on ABC Thursday morning, Smart talked about missing children in general, while also complimenting Dugard for speaking out.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "GOOD MORNING AMERICA")

ELIZABETH SMART: So, what her story shows is that there are still children out there that are waiting to be found.

DEGGANS: She's articulate and poised, even after enduring every parent and child's worst nightmare.

ABC: 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 kinds 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 sometimes 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.

NORRIS: Eric Deggans is the TV and media critic for the St. Petersburg Times. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.