TV: On-Demand Cable Crimefighters

Even for experienced crimefighters, the suspect was proving hard to find. The man was suspected of a murder in Atlanta, and authorities had been trying to trace his whereabouts for months without success. "This was a guy who lived on the street, going from drug house to drug house," says Katrina Crouse, senior inspector of the U.S. Marshals Service. But in April 2008 a task force of 20 local, state, and federal law-enforcement groups signed on to participate in Police Blotter, a national program that profiles fugitives in different cities via cable-on-demand programming. In one of the Atlanta area's first shows, the murder suspect was highlighted; shortly afterward a tipster called in his address, and authorities nabbed him. In that area alone, the program is responsible for aiding in the apprehension of six profiled criminals, Crouse says.

Think of Police Blotter, produced by the Comcast cable giant, as a hometown new-media knockoff of the nationwide broadcast show America's Most Wanted, now in its 21st season on Fox. But AMW, which claims credit for 1,078 apprehensions of some of the country's most dangerous outlaws, runs only once a week—Saturday at 9 p.m. ET. Police Blotter appeals to the TiVo generation by offering itself on demand, to be watched any time a viewer chooses. It also has a hyper-local appeal: instead of showing profiles of criminals last seen many states away, Police Blotter features only criminals suspected of being right in viewers' communities. Oddly enough, one key viewership seems to be the suspects themselves. "I've had criminals I've spoken to say they've seen themselves on an on-demand segment," says Cpl. Jeffrey Whitmarsh of the Delaware State Police.

Police Blotter is a simple concept, with decent production values. The hometown police—or the local office of state or federal crimefighters—provides eight to 10 profiles of perps (mug shots, age, height, etc.). The agency also casts one of its own officers as an onscreen host to read from the teleprompter. Comcast typically films it all, usually at a police facility. Within weeks, Police Blotter debuts in the on-demand lineup found on the onscreen cable-channel guide, alongside (in Comcast's case) some 10,000 on-demand choices of movies, episodes of hit TV series and other programming. As with America's Most Wanted, the show is updated regularly to feature new outlaws.

For Comcast, the show has provided results worth bragging about. "Through tips directly related to the on-demand service, we've helped capture 50 criminals" in local communities, says Matt Strauss, senior vice president of new media for Comcast, which owns Police Blotter. "It's all amazing—just from using technology that didn't exist a few years ago." Nationwide, the program is drawing about a million viewers a year, a respectable number for an on-demand program.

The Delaware State Police was one of the first law-enforcement agencies to sign on to the program, in 2007. In the beginning, authorities were a little skeptical. But "the end product exceeded my expectation," says Whitmarsh, the police spokesman. Just three months after Police Blotter premiered on the local Comcast system, his department nabbed a bank-robbery suspect who'd eluded capture for a year. "Through my direct contact with tipsters, I know Police Blotter has been instrumental in a dozen captures," Whitmarsh says.

Inspector Crouse and her colleagues, too, have discovered the pent-up demand among fugitives for the on-demand hit. "When we've captured fugitives in the past—say, a fugitive not even on the Comcast show—they will tell us that they've seen this show," she says. "Not only is it being watched by law-abiding citizens, but bad guys are watching. That was unexpected for me: criminals watching themselves or each other on on-demand television." And they're not just watching—they're dialing in tips. "They'll turn each other in," says Crouse. Why? "I don't know what the motivation is," she says. "Maybe it's a competition issue." Delaware's Whitmarsh even cites instances of fugitives surrendering "to avoid being on local television" and causing loved ones embarrassment.

The program is just one of the varied offerings being cooked up for on-demand television. Through Pet Adoptions on Demand, in which Comcast profiles 30 "furry guest stars" each month, pet lovers are introduced to animals orphaned in local shelters. There's also Dating on Demand, which the company touts as the "first-ever TV personals." "I've come home and found my wife watching it," Comcast's Strauss says. "What I wanted to believe is there's a voyeurism component to this. I have to believe that that's part of it. This is the ultimate reality TV."

For the police, on-demand television is just the latest weapon in a media arsenal for crimefighting—from newspapers and radio to billboards and broadcast Amber Alerts in child-abduction cases. And more than others, Police Blotter produces surprising results. Once, for example, the Atlanta task force discovered a fugitive's whereabouts through a tip from an Atlanta-area corrections officer watching the show to unwind while off duty. "There was a guy already in a jail that we profiled," recalls Crouse. "The information that this guy was in custody wasn't in the database." One more case closed.