(News Focus) True-crime documentaries lure viewers to streaming platforms
By Kim Eun-jung
SEOUL, March 23 (Yonhap) -- True-crime stories have been frequent subjects of investigative journalism TV shows, but they have recently emerged as the next big theme in documentaries available on streaming platforms under looser standards, sparking ethical questions over the genre.
True-crime documentaries by producers from local broadcasters have arrived on Netflix and other over-the-top (OTT) services with stories stranger than fiction, shocking viewers and stirring debate.
Netflix documentary series "In the Name of God: A Holy Betrayal," directed by MBC producer Cho Sung-hyun, has stayed on the streamer's Top 10 global chart for non-English TV series since its release March 3 and created online buzz by shedding light on the rise and fall of four Korean cult leaders accused of manipulating and exploiting their followers in grueling ways.
The first three episodes recount allegations of how Jeong Myeong-seok, founder of the Christian Gospel Mission, widely known as JMS, had sexually exploited young female followers by claiming to be the Messiah.
Two other episodes expose controversial crime allegations surrounding the religious cult Baby Garden, also known as "Agadongsan" in Korean, and its leader Kim Ki-sun, currently the chairman of the local album company Sinnara Records.
JMS sought an injunction to ban the show's airing, but its request was dismissed, while another injunction request by Baby Garden and Kim is awaiting a court hearing Friday.
The documentary was praised for raising public awareness of pseudo-religious groups still active and encouraging their followers to leave, but some of the inflammatory remarks and graphic depictions of sexual assault incidents raised questions of what's acceptable and what's not.
In response to criticism, Cho said he insisted the disturbing scenes should be included to transparently deliver facts to viewers.
"I wanted to raise social awareness about the incidents and religions to bring changes to our society. I think such changes are already happening and am personally pleased," Cho said in a press conference March 10.
Wavve, a local streaming platform, has been airing "National Office of Investigation," which gets up close and personal with police officers investigating violent crimes, including murder, robbery and drug cases.
The 13-part series helmed by Bae Jung-hun, who was behind local broadcaster SBS's investigative series "Unanswered Questions," captured viewers' attention by offering an in-depth insight into covert police investigations and dramatic crackdown scenes.
Unlike projects on terrestrial networks, Bae said his team were able to spend enough time following police officers to show the whole investigative process by taking advantage of the collaboration with the OTT platform.
"It was satisfying that we had enough production time to show the conclusion of the cases without leaving any questions about them," Bae said during a group media interview Wednesday.
Cho, who had previously worked on the MBC investigation show "PD Notebook," also pointed out the flexible environment for its content and production schedule as the biggest advantage of working with Netflix.
"If we had done 'PD Notebook' on the same subject, it would have taken about eight to 10 weeks, and there would have been fewer people to meet," Cho said. "We met about 200 people for this documentary. We were able to approach the subject much more in-depth than any other broadcast because we worked on the project for nearly two years."
The early success of the true crime documentaries proved the growth potential of the genre, but critics argue the OTT documentaries in the realm of journalism should be under stricter guidelines due to concerns over violent or sexually explicit crime content.
"The reenactment of crimes and methods in investigative programs remains a still controversial issue as there are concerns over exposing crime techniques, as well as sexually explicit and violent scenes to viewers," said Jang Seok-jun, a media and communications professor at Chung-Ang University. "It is time to start discussions over OTT content that is under the blind spot of guidelines and regulations."
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