on the seven FOX Stations in February 1988, America's Most Wanted
is a U.S. reality program featuring segments which reenact crimes
of wanted fugitives,. Two months later, the show moved to the FOX
Broadcasting Corporation and its affiliates. Produced by FOX Television
Stations Productions (a unit of FOX Television Stations Inc.), America's
Most Wanted may be cited as the first example of the "manhunt"
type of reality shows. Consistently winning solid ratings throughout
its history, it has also been credited as a television show which
doubles as both entertainment and "public-service." Through the
use of a toll-free "hotline," it elicits the participation of viewers
in helping to capture known suspects depicted on the program, thus
garnering praise and cooperation from law enforcement officials.
As a reality
program, the style and content of America's Most Wanted closely
follows that of other program types gathered under this broad industry
label (e.g.: "tabloid" newsmagazines, video-verite and reenacted
crime, rescue and manhunt shows, and family amateur video programs).
Central to each of these genres is a visible reference to, or dramatization
of, real events and occupations. Thus, while the stories told on
America's Most Wanted stem from "real life" incidents, they
are not comprised of "actual" live footage (with the exception of
recorded testimony from the "real" people involved). Rather, incidents
of criminality and victimization are reenacted, and in an often
intense and involving manner. This dramatic component, particularly
as it entails a subjective appeal, is a dominant feature of reality
programmes, which tend to accentuate the emotional for their effectivity.
Viewers are thus asked to empathize and identify with the experiences
of the people represented on the show, especially insofar as these
experiences involve social or moral dilemmas.
a structure similar to that used by television newsmagazines--which
move back and forth from promotional trailer to anchor to report--each
episode of America's Most Wanted is divided into a number
of segments which retell and reenact a particular crime. Beginning
with an up-date on how many viewers' tips have thus far led to the
capture of fugitives featured on the show, the program then moves
to the host or "anchor," who introduces the program and the first
story segment. Using both actors and live footage of the "real people"
involved, these story segments are highly dramatized, making liberal
use of quick edits, rock music underscoring, sophisticated camera
effects and voice-overs. In addition to supplying a narrative function,
the voice-overs also include actual testimony of the event from
police, victims and the criminals involved, thus emphasizing and
appealing to the subjective.
resembles the tabloid newsmagazine genre in its often exaggerated
language, also used in promotional trailers and by the host to describe
the crimes depicted on the show (e.g.: "Next, a tragic tale of obsession").
Additionally, and again paralleling qualities of tabloid TV, there
are noticeable efforts towards self-promotion or congratulation;
the host, law enforcement officials, and even captured fugitives
repeatedly hype the policing and surveillance functions of the show.
And yet, despite these consistencies with a denigrated tabloid TV
genre, America's Most Wanted is distinct in its appeal to
and affiliation with both "the public" and the police.
is hosted by John Walsh, who "anchors" America's Most Wanted
from Washington, D.C. Given the show's cooperation with federal
law agencies, such as the FBI and the U.S. Marshall Service, its
broadcast from this location acts to further associate it with law
enforcement institutions. Walsh, whose son was abducted and murdered
in 1981, is a nationally-known advocate for missing and exploited
children. As part of its program format, America's Most Wanted
airs a weekly feature on missing children, and has created "The
Missing Child Alert," a series of public service bulletins which
are made available to all television stations, regardless of network
Photo courtesy of John Walsh
its toll-free hotline (1-800-CRIME-TV), which operates seven days
and averages 2,500 calls a week, the program has assisted in the
apprehension of hundreds of fugitives, and thus earned the appreciation
of law enforcement agencies. Additionally, America's Most Wanted
sees itself as enabling a cathartic process; offering not only legal
justice, but psychological resolution to victims of crime. In both
these respects, America's Most Wanted may be said to move
away from much of the fixed voyeurism of reality shows, towards
a more active "public" function. And yet, do manhunt shows such
as America's Most Wanted simply temper the tabloid's spectacle
into a new form of "vigilante voyeurism?" Do such shows not only
feed into, but actively promote, a public's fears regarding an ever
present criminal threat? Such questions, regarding the aims, the
intended audience and the effectivity of America's Most Wanted's
public function, must be addressed.
Heflin, Joseph Russin, Paul Sparrow
1988-August 1990 Sunday
1990-July 1993 Friday
July 1993-January 1994 Tuesday
January 1994-- Saturday
Diane. "John Walsh: Fighting Back." Saturday Evening Post
(Indianapolis, Indiana), April 1990.
Stuart. "Crime can Often Become an Accessory to Fiction on TV."
New Statesman & Society (London), 7 December 1990.
Gives programs Exclusives on Fugitives." The New York Times,
15 September 1991.
Angus. "Gutter and Gore." New Statesman & Society (London),
9 September 1988.
David. "Wanted: Lowlifes and High Ratings." Rolling Stone
(New York), 12 January 1989.
George. "FBI to Newspapers: Watch Television." Editor & Publisher
(New York), 21 September 1991.
Scott A. "Crime-time Television." The FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin
(Washington, D.C.), August 1988.
Prial, Frank J. "Freeze! You're on TV." Reader's Digest (Pleasantville,
New York), March 1989.
Crime Pays." The Economist (London), 10 June 1989.
Bill. "Finding Truth in the Age of 'Infotainment.'" Editorial
Research Reports (Washington, D.C.: Congressional Quarterly,
Inc.), 19 January 1990.
Daniel R. "America's Most Wanted." ABA Journal (Chicago),