Anthony E. Zuiker's 'Whodunnit?' Is Good Enough to Go Worldwide


Scripted crime series is expensive to make. New reality show by 'CSI' creator gives broadcasters an option to create local content and spend less. format analysis.

Monday, December 02, 2013

ABC introduced new reality competition combining elements of reality shows, modern CSI-like crime series and classic 'Columbo' detective mood. 'Whodunnit?' was developed by creator and executive producer of 'CSI' franchise Anthony E. Zuiker.

'Whodunnit?' puts together group of people, some of them professionally connected to crime (TV crime reporter, ex-homicide detective, attorney, bounty hunter). One of them is a murderer and kills contestants one by one. To survive they must understand each crime the best possible, prove their knowledge of crime scene and have detailed and accurate information about the crime at the end of each episode. Who knows the least dies. At the end of the show only two people remain - the killer and the winner of cash prize.

Ratings: Neither a smash hit, nor disappointment

US version of 'Whodunnit?' averaged 1.4 rating (target group 18-49, live+7) according to Nielsen Media Research. On average 3.9 million viewers (2+, live+7) watched the show and almost 45% of them was aged 18-49. The result was adequate for summer off-season when ratings are always low. ABC itself achieved approximately 1.0 weekly ratings (18-48, live+SD) during summer of 2013 and 'Whodunnit?' performance was about the same.

Ratings 18-49 (live+SD, source: Nielsen)

Formulas that work globally

'Whodunnit?' uses formulas that work in every good scripted crime series but transforming them to part-reality part-drama version brings additional value. Viewers may not only watch passively - they can sympathize with competitors, solve puzzles simultaneously... 'Whodunnit?' is precisely created format with the signature of Anthony E. Zuiker and his know-how works very well in this case.

Benefits of 'Whodunnit?'

There already are similar formats, e.g. 'The Mole' and 'Murder in Small Town X'. 'The Mole' resembles usual reality game shows with physical challenges playing important role, whereas 'Murder in Small Town X' is more factual and its docu-reality dimension makes it a good choice for documentary cable channels like ID Investigation Discovery.

All the differences bring 'Whodunnit?' closer to crime series fans than other formats. The show is suitable for international broadcasters with strong crime genre slots - it has a potential to keep existing viewers, but also create bigger buzz than acquisitions and strengthen channel ratings.

Adjustments needed

American approach to 'Whodunnit?' was affected by Anthony E. Zuiker. He tried to bring CSI experience with high quality camera shots, big explosions, special effects and strong scripted elements. ABC premiere looks like US-only product rather than possible format. For international broadcasters we recommend couple of adjustments:

• Less acting. In ABC's 'Whodunnit?' contestants acted as if everything was real. They showed scare and often expressed their fear of dying. "Acting" is the weakest element of the format - it seems unbelievable and confusing. When you visit a scary funfair attraction you get frightened, but you know it is just an illusion and not a deadly reality. It should be the same in 'Whodunnit?': contestants might get amazed by special effects, but saying they are scared of immediate death makes the whole concept fake. Butler should play his role and contestants too; they are participants of reality show, not real killer's victims.

• Better inclusion of viewers. The format has high potential to include viewers - higher than ABC showed. Viewers need more space to create their own crime theories. Possibly a voiceover summarizing what happened, conspiring, asking viewers which theory they prefer and whether they agree with contestants may help. Social media is not enough.

'Whodunnit?' calls for relatively high budget. International broadcaster can make the show less eye-catching and use less special effects. Murders might be more delicate and less showy.

Casting is easy - you don't need to find real bounty hunters or ex-detectives, they just have to act believably.

The format requires special shooting location (mansion) and some exterior shots. But it is worth trying: it's perfectly complementary to scripted crime series. Shows like 'CSI', 'The Mentalist' or classics such as 'Columbo' and 'Murder, She Wrote' are popular. 'Whodunnit?' is the first reality format that brings local flavor to the world of crime.