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FBI Tries Tuning In and Reaching Out

​LAW ENFORCEMENT has long turned to television for assistance in solving crimes. The recently canceled America’s Most Wanted is perhaps the most well-known example. Over the years, the program aired original episodes on two different networks that led to the apprehension of more than a thousand suspects for crimes ranging from theft to rape to murder. Recently, the FBI launched an initiative with USA Network’s White Collar to try to garner tips that could lead to finding suspects who’ve stolen cultural property, and possibly finding the stolen items as well.

The segment is called Real Life White Collar Crimes. A teaser that airs during White Collar displays specific stolen property and directs viewers to the White CollarWeb site, where they can learn the back story and view pictures of other stolen items and send tips to the FBI.

Even before the initiative, the FBI was already consulting on the show’s content. Jessica Sutherland, vice president of digital content development at USA Networks, says that the folks from the FBI were very helpful; White Collar staff could have just researched famous cases to use on their own but, she says, the FBI “gave us a really complete briefing document on the unique histories and what had happened, and what made the items so unique and valuable. And we were all fascinated, so we knew if we were fascinated and really into the story, our fans would be too.”

Originally, the show’s cases were only “inspired by” real life crimes. This new initiative takes the interaction to a new level. “We knew we could use the fact that we were working with the FBI, and drive [people] to the site for more information, and it would potentially help the FBI get new information about these cases that had not been solved. And, for us, it just legitimizes the on-air storylines in White Collar,” Sutherland says.

The FBI hopes to benefit as well. “It’s not all that different than the many other things we do to help engage the public to help solve crime,” says Michael Kortan, assistant director for Public Affairs for the FBI. He adds, “This is just an example of using a popular TV show with a captive audience…. This growth of cable shows and particularly the so-called reality area and the interest in crime shows has really presented new opportunities for law enforcement, including us, to use those programs and to reach out to those audiences to help solve crime at the same time when it’s possible,” says Kortan.

It isn’t unusual for popular culture projects to want FBI input. At any given time, the agency might have more than a hundred requests of assistance from the entertainment industry, according to Kortan. “It may be something as simple as they just need to learn more about the FBI to make their product a little more authentic, or it could be much more involvement [like] a movie production or a series that requires more effort on our part,” he notes.

Kortan says that the agency must prioritize which projects to help and that the agency will often spend more time on projects with a real interest in making an authentic and realistic presentation.

Another television show that benefits from law enforcement cooperation is American Greed: The Fugitives, which airs on CNBC and is a spinoff of American Greed. The program focuses on white collar crimes in which the perpetrators are still at large. Law enforcement agents will often appear on the program and provide information on the suspects and the investigations during the research process.

“What it does is it lets our viewers get really inside an investigation and the twists and turns; it just provides very good content,” says Charles Schaeffer, executive producer of American Greed and The Fugitives. The Fugitives also has a Web component that includes extra information on the cases that did not make it to air. “Part of the success of the show is the openness and ability of our producers to talk to law enforcement to have them tell the stories,” says Schaeffer.

Kortan says, “It’s really a great perfect storm of having a product, having a subject that people are interested in, having a need to solve crime, and sort of having the right audiences interested in helping us do that.”