JERICHO, N.Y. - In September, Seth Techel received a life sentence in Iowa for murdering his pregnant wife to pursue a romance with a co-worker. In October, a production crew descended on a suburban home in this Long Island town to recreate the drama for an episode of "Scorned: Love Kills," a popular series on the real-crime network Investigation Discovery.

Cameras followed a young couple kissing passionately in one corner of the yard, a scowling neighbor holding a gun in another corner and police officers searching for a murder weapon in the backyard. In the ensuing weeks, producers packaged the shots into an hourlong program that will be televised in the spring to more than 100 million homes in 157 countries and territories.

The Discovery network has found that crime pays, all around the world.

Filled with a sensational mix of romance-gone-wrong murder mysteries like "Scorned: Love Kills" and "Deadly Affairs," hosted by the former soap opera queen Susan Lucci, Investigation Discovery has attracted a global audience of fans so dedicated that they complain to the network that its logo is permanently visible on their television screens.

Investigation Discovery, which made its debut in the United States in 2008, has become one of the fastest growing cable television networks in the country. It is especially popular among women, ranking as a top five cable network for women 24 to 54 years old in the United States.

Discovery quickly discovered a global appetite for romantic, suspenseful crime dramas when it started expanding in 2009 — televising largely the same salacious stories based on cases in the United States, but with new hosts and in local languages.

That expansion is set to continue in 2015, with the network planning to expand to a total of 200 global markets.

"Crime is universal," said David M. Zaslav, chief executive of Discovery Communications, which owns the Investigation Discovery network. "The stories are set in an American town, but it could be anywhere."

For Discovery, the growth of its true-crime network is part of a plan for international growth as ratings and revenue decline in the United States television market. Revenues in Discovery's international business surpassed its domestic revenues for the first time in 2014, a trend that executives said was expected to grow as the group introduces other offerings abroad, like its Velocity network.

The company is not alone in its strategy. Old and new television companies alike — including Netflix, Viacom and Time Warner — are seeking to expand abroad, each deploying a slightly different approach as it tries to profit by introducing its characters, programs and networks to new audiences. Not all efforts have succeeded, with companies facing steep cultural and business challenges.

While Discovery's international growth has been strong in recent years, thanks to mergers and acquisitions and network expansion, some analysts expect that growth to slow amid economic, political and other competitive challenges. The decision to start Investigation Discovery nearly seven years ago was anything but a sure bet. Rebranded from its earlier rendition as Discovery Times, a joint venture with The New York Times Company about American culture, the network was competing for attention against hundreds of established channels.

Then Henry S. Schleiff arrived in 2009 as group president of Investigation Discovery and a roster of other networks, bearing the ideal credentials for proceeding with a crime network. Mr. Schleiff had been chief executive of Crown Media Holdings, owner of the Hallmark Channel, known for its sentimental love stories. Earlier, he was chief executive of Court TV Network, the home of live court coverage that gained attention during the O. J. Simpson trial.

During his first meeting with Mr. Zaslav, Mr.Schleiff endorsed going all-in with Investigation Discovery, broadcasting nothing but true stories about crime, mystery and romance. The executives made their bet based on the popularity of crime novels and police procedurals, like "NCIS," "CSI" and "Law and Order," which for years had topped the ratings charts.

Mr. Schleiff said he thought at the time that the group could build a successful brand, "if we can be a place where viewers can consistently know that regardless of the hours, regardless of the day, that they will always be able to flip to this network and know that they are going to get a story of the mystery, crime, suspense genre."

The strategy also was economical: with plotlines ripped from the headlines, re-enactment actors and few stars, the average cost per hourlong episode totaled about $300,000 — roughly a tenth of the cost of an average scripted network drama. Investigation Discovery produces more than 700 hours of original programming a year and owns the rights to those shows. That allows the network to capitalize on them, digitally and internationally.

The network quickly gained momentum, embracing the outlandish and melodramatic. In addition to Ms. Lucci, hosts include the longtime journalist Paula Zahn and the comedian Roseanne Barr. Legions of fans, calling themselves "ID Addicts," congregate online discussing the twists and turns of shows with names like "Wives With Knives," "Momsters: When Moms Go Bad," "Fatal Vows" and "Who the (BLEEP) Did I Marry?"

"We've appreciated the importance of being a little bit over the top," Mr. Schleiff said. "It brings some attention to our shows."

The network has gained such cultural infamy that it was mocked during a 2013 episode of the animated comedy "South Park." In an episode titled "Informative Murder Porn," one character gives a school report on the network, describing it is as "the vile and despicable trash that our parents are watching on cable television."

While certain genres like action and adventure films transcend cultures, Investigation Discovery's international appeal was not a given.

But Discovery's international outposts witnessed the success of the network in the United States and wanted to see whether they could bring the format to their home markets. Some tinkering is involved, using local celebrities for hosts, dubbing the language or adding subtitles and even adding more sex scenes. Investigation Discovery now ranks at the top of ratings charts for women in Poland, Britain, Mexico and other countries.

"The emotions that are related to those situations are very similar, all around the world," said Kasia Kieli, president and managing director of Discovery Networks in Central and Eastern Europe, the Middle East and Africa.

Lisa Kort-Butler, a sociology professor at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln, who studies crime and justice in the media, said that viewers were drawn to these crime dramas because of the classic struggle between good and evil.

"It is worthwhile mentioning that the kinds of crimes presented in these programs are sensational and extra-ordinary in the U.S. context, and even more so in countries in Northern and Western Europe, Canada, the U.K., Australia and Japan, which have lower crime rates," she said by email. "Ultimately, these shows are 'infotainment,' morality tales spun with (mis)information about crime and the justice process."

At a holiday party last month, Ms. Lucci noted that even after years in the soap opera world she was surprised at the voracious appetite fans have for the salacious programming on Investigation Discovery. "Truth really is stranger than fiction," she said.

EMILY STEEL
newyorktimes.com

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