By Carol Memmott
Scripted TV dramas about serial killers - think Fox's The Following, Showtime's Dexter and NBC's forthcoming Hannibal - are rather lively when it comes to attracting viewers.
So how does a true-crime network compete? If you're Investigation Discovery, you put a real-life serial killer on the air.
Dark Minds, Season 2, premieres Wednesday at 10 ET/PT, and its hook is extraordinary. An incarcerated serial killer - known only as Raven - offers on-air advice and speculation to true-crime writer M. William Phelps and criminal profiler John Kelly as they sift through serial-killer cold cases they hope to help solve.
"This real-life Raven represents the quintessential example of what Investigation Discovery is doing," says network President Henry Schleiff. "Where the intersection of fact overcomes and exceeds fiction. We're proving that truth is not only stranger but more entertaining, more compelling than scripted fiction, and the numbers bear that out."
And viewers are indeed tuning in to ID series, all based on actual events, with catchy titles includingWho the (Bleep) Did I Marry?, Horrible Bosses, Evil Twins, Dates From Hell, Karma's a B*tch, Frenemies and Wives With Knives.
January was the network's best month ever, and 2012 was ID's best year ever, averaging 649,000 viewers in prime time, a 23% increase over 2011. Full-day viewership is up 32%. "We're all competing to have viewers come to us," says Schleiff, "and we're looking for access in ways of telling stories that are always different."
You can't get more different than Dark Minds. Raven's identity - we don't see him on screen, and his voice is digitally disguised - won't be revealed. But Phelps says Raven is serving two life sentences for multiple murders. His value lies in his personal experience. "He gives insight into what's going through the mind of a serial killer. It's very important to us what the killer is thinking."
Raven, he says, wants to let the public know that serial killers are not like they are on TV. "It's not always the cartoonish character that oftentimes dramatic television paints them to be, writing names in blood on the wall and that sort of thing," Phelps says.
"Raven will tell me and tell the audience straight out, 'I killed because I enjoyed it. I killed because I needed to do it.' He blames his victims, and he has no qualms about admitting that," Phelps says. "He believes his victims deserved to die, and I can't convince him otherwise."
As to giving a serial killer a platform that allows him to speak to hundreds of thousands of viewers, Schleiff says: "I think we're pushing the envelope to its outer edges, but I don't think we're tearing those edges. Here's a person who's properly incarcerated and, frankly, if we can somehow derive some benefit and help solve cases where families of the victim get to resolution, then I think in the grand scheme of life that's probably not a bad objective."
The end, Schleiff says, justifies the means.
Among the cases that Phelps and Kelly explore with Raven's help: the original Night Stalker, who terrorized California from Sacramento to Los Angeles from the mid-1970s through the mid-1980s, committing 50 rapes and 10 murders; and the I-70 Killer, who in the early 1990s claimed six victims in five states.
To viewers skeptical of Dark Minds' creepy format, Phelps says, "Judge for yourself the value of Raven and view the show for its merit. I'm using this dramatic twist with Raven to get you to watch, so we can move these cases forward. The important thing for me is to bring a spotlight to these unsolved cold cases, which I think with the public's help can be solved."