Producing TV's True Crime
A researcher and field producer discusses his work on the Dark Side.
Posted Oct 27, 2015
I met Ed Hydock while he was on the film crew of Forensic Files, that classic true crime show once affiliated with CourtTV and now rebroadcast on networks like HLN and ID.
As CourtTV came to an end, Hydock moved on other projects, working as a producer, field producer, researcher, and developer for some of the shows that keep crime lovers coming back for more. Among them are House of Horrors, Southern Fried Homicide, I was Possessed, and The Nightmare Next Door.
Few people know what goes on behind the scenes to get these show up and running. Since Hydock has experienced production from many angles, he’s in a perfect position to demystify the process. He agreed to answer some questions.
1. How did you get started in the true crime documentary business? What was your training?
I was an electronic media major at Kutztown University of Pennsylvania and had the opportunity to intern at Medstar Television, which produced Forensic Files on what was then CourtTV. During my internship, I grew to love the true crime genre and was lucky enough to make it a career.
2. You worked on Forensic Files for a long time. Describe your role in the production of these shows.
I wore many hats during my time there. As an associate producer, I researched potential cases, pitched them to the network, and helped shepherd each episode from conception to delivery. Later, I became Production Coordinator and was responsible for booking camera crews all over the world. I also shot additional b-roll for each episode as needed. It was an amazing opportunity, which taught me a lot about the industry.
3. Since Forensic Files, you have taken on more roles, such as doing research. What guides you in the type of stories that will work for a specific program?
Each series has very specific criteria regarding the cases it can profile. For this reason, research can be grueling. Teams use various search engines, pay sites, and networking to find possible stories. But before any case gets cleared for production, it must be cross-checked with the network to make sure it hasn't been done before.
It needs to be fully adjudicated and have willing participants. And you have to make sure the story itself will hold enough TV time. Just because a case looks promising on paper doesn't mean it's a slam dunk - which can be frustrating when you're on a deadline.
4. How do producers of true crime decide on a show's theme?
True crime shows follow a very linear format: Person dies, crime scene is investigated, suspects are ruled out, killer is arrested. But each case has unique elements, which allow producers to skew the timeline for dramatic purposes, while staying true to the story. As the story begins to unfold on paper, we go through a million revisions to determine how it can be told accurately, while making it suspenseful for the audience.
5. What's the difference between a producer and a field producer?
A producer stays in house and drives the episode. They're in charge of generating outlines, scripts, question and b-roll lists, as well as sitting with the editor to put together every frame of the project. It's their baby.
The field producer is just that - they go into the field to execute the producer's vision. Their role is to interview each participant and gather b-roll (with the camera crew, of course). Having a solid field producer makes the producer's job a whole lot easier!
6. Have you ever worked on a show that inspired a copycat crime?
No. However, I've heard of several cases (most recently, Alan J. Smith in Seattle, 2013), where a killer binge-watched shows like Forensic Files before carrying out his crime. Sad to know that a series that was meant to be informative and inspirational could inspire such evil.
7. Did working on The Nightmare Next Door change your sense of people?
Unfortunately, it just reinforced the fact that bad things can and will happen to good people, in even the safest corners of the globe.
8. How is working on I was Possessed different from the true crime genre?
I was Possessed is more about a personal ordeal than an actual crime. There are still victims, but the culprits aren't of this world. By nature, I'm a person who needs to see something to believe it. However, after talking with these folks, and listening to them recount the physical and emotional trauma they've endured, it's hard to remain a skeptic. If you need me, I'll be in church!
9. Is there anything in the true crime documentary business that you would like to do what you haven't yet done?
I've had the opportunity to work with some of the most renowned prosecutors, scientists, detectives and psychologists in the world. I've met victims of horrific crimes and cried as they told me their story. I've learned how to solve crimes, as well as plan the perfect murder. Honestly ... I'd love the chance to work on something different – something with a happier ending.
10. Is there a crime case that particularly intrigued you as you worked on it?
Hands down, the most interesting case I've ever worked was one I did for Southern Fried Homicide about Audrey Marie Hilley - an Alabama socialite who poisoned almost her entire family. She really had it all, but was too selfish for her own good. The intriguing part is that she would've gotten away with it if she would've just stopped! She moved away, remarried, changed her identity, and started a new life. But something inside her kept pushing the envelope, and it not only got her arrested, but killed. I'd love to know why she did the things she did.
11. Is there any interesting tidbit about working behind the scenes that you can share with viewers?
One thing the average viewer doesn't see is how much manpower goes into something as seemingly simple as a half-hour show. Producers, assistant producers, editors, production assistants, actors, locations, vehicles, legal releases, time, money, hours and hours of footage ... it's a creative process like no other! So when you're watching any given show, never forget that it took a team of amazingly talented people months of sleepless nights to put together. But it's all worth it when you see the finished product!