By Gregory Crofton
A show that’s tantalized viewers for decades, and single-handedly created the true crime genre for television, has a green light from Netflix. The streaming giant ordered 12 new episodes of “Unsolved Mysteries.”
I spoke to John Cosgrove, a creator of the show, about his work, and how the Netflix episodes will focus on one “mystery” per show and not rely on any narration.
Channel Nonfiction: Congratulations on the Netflix deal!
John Cosgrove: We’re pretty happy. Very busy and very happy.
CN: Is this news you’ve known about for a while?
JC: Netflix sent out a press release just a few days ago, but we’ve been working on it for a couple of months, yeah.
CN: How did you and Mr. Meurer (co-creator of the show) start working together?
JC: Terry Meurer is a woman. We were both working at another company back in the late 80s and started collaborating. We thought of “Unsolved Mysteries” and realized it was a chance to start our own company.
We had done some specials for NBC that they liked, so they were willing to entertain the idea of our being a production company. That’s kind of how it all got started.
CN: What do you do, and what does she do, for the show?
JC: We both produce, write and direct. After a while, when it went to series, we divided things up where I would handle a lot of the post duties, and she would handle a lot of the production duties.
CN: With this reboot it says in the (Netflix) press release that there will be one topic per episode. Obviously a signature of the series is that you have four to five segments and one update. So that’s gonna be different, correct?
JC: It’ll be very different and there’s no host and no narrator, so it will be pure documentary style. We’re excited about taking this on. We’ve done shows like that in the past and it’s a different way of working.
We don’t have the luxury of solving editing problems by writing some narration, so you have to be more organized when you go out and shoot, and then very creative in the editing room.
CN: But you’re looking forward to that change?
JC: I think it will be excellent. It feels much more contemporary of than the old style. And we don’t have the horrible job of trying to find somebody as good as Robert Stack.
CN: Did Robert Stack really enjoy working on the show or was it just work for him?
JC: He enjoyed it very, very much. He was very proud of the show, and he was proud of the fact that cases got solved. He was very closely aligned with law enforcement after (portraying) Eliot Ness (on the Untouchables). He liked the idea that we did stories that would help law enforcement get cases solved.
He was just a wonderful guy to work with. He had a great sense of humor, and wonderful behind-the-scenes stories of the old Hollywood. So I think he had a great time, and you know he did it for 11 years.
CN: Did he have to fly to a lot of locations, or did you guys shoot mainly in California?
JC: We shot mostly around L.A. From time to time, we would fly him somewhere. We did a story about Alcatraz and we went up to the Bay Area, but mostly it was in locations around Southern California.
CN: Do you have any idea when the 12 episodes, I imagine they’ll be released all at once, will come out?
JC: I don’t, no. I don’t know yet.
CN: But you’re in production right now?
JC: Not yet. We’re in the process of finding stories and writing outlines and getting things set up.
CN: So if people contact you with story ideas on your website, there’s still a chance that one of those make it to air?
JC: Yes, that’s right.
CN: I saw from your website that you had more than 500 cases solved, more than 100 families reunited and seven people wrongly convicted, released. Are those stats up to date?
JC: You know it’s easier to talk in terms of percentages. When we did a story what we’d call “Lost Love,” if we had a photograph of who we were looking for there was a 50 percent chance that person would be found. And if it was a wanted criminal and we had a photograph there was a 40 percent chance that person would be found.
CN: Do you work with law enforcement at all?
JC: Sure, when we do interviews we often interview various investigators.
CN: Do you think that with this reboot, will social media be involved, or will it just be phone calls, how do you think it will change the media’s evolution?
JC: That I couldn’t answer. I don’t know.
JC: One of the things when you communicated with (us) you said you were interested in renewed popularity (of the show) because it’s being streamed on Roku and Hulu and etcetera. I think it’s been really interesting and wonderful to see that a new audience is reached with the programs we’ve produced in the past.
And it’s very fulfilling to see that. And it’s great to go on to Amazon Prime and Hulu and watch the Robert Stack shows and people can binge on them. It’s a very satisfying feeling for a production company.
CN: How did Netflix get interested in a possible reboot of the show?
JC: It was suggested by our agents to team up with 21 Laps. And my partner Terry Meurer went and did that, and (then they) went into Netflix, and I think Netflix liked the idea of the partnership. I think that’s what made a big difference.
CN: So it (the reboot) may not have been the fact that the streaming on Roku and Amazon happened. It may have happened anyway?
JC: That’s right.
CN: When you were making the show in the late 80s, what shows influenced your show?
JC: We did a show called “Five American Guns” for HBO, Terry Meurer and I did it. And I guess it was around 1985, that used recreations that used real people doing the recreations from these stories that were involved in gun, shooting, incidents.
It turned out to be very effective and very well received. Terry had also done a documentary about missing children and so it was kind combining those two formats that the show evolved from.
CN: That’s interesting. That was one of my questions watching the series on Roku. It’s just amazing to the actual victims or people affected by these crimes or missing people willing to be involved in the reenactments.
JC: I think it was actually beneficial for them. It helped them process the events that they’d gone through, and the people that they worked with i.e. our guys, our crew, us, were very sympathetic, empathic, towards them.
So it helped them work through grief, unhappiness, sadness that they were going through. And the fact that somebody would pay attention for whatever show I think made them feel better.
CN: Were there some people who could not participate (in a reenactment)?
CN: What about the reenactments? They are compelling, more compelling than I’ve seen other reenactments be. Is there anyway you could shed some light on how you achieved that? Other than obviously using people sometimes involved in the actual cases.
JC: I think we just had really good directors and were willing to spend more money to make them look good.
CN: Where have some of your best stories or favorite stories come from?
JC: Well usually from the researchers. You know when we started out there was no Internet. Researchers would have contacts throughout the country with journalists, police and so on and they would find the stories.
After the show had been on the air for a while, because we had an 800 number and a website, more and more stories were referred to us by viewers asking us to do stories they they know about or are involved in.
CN: You must have gotten so much information that was not usable, was that true?
JC: I didn’t understand. You mean confidential information? Or off-record information?
CN: Just stories that weren’t true. You know ‘I’ve got this brother who went missing.’
JC: We were pretty careful about … we didn’t run into a lot people asking us to do stories that weren’t true.
CN: Do you know any stories for sure that you have set for the new Netflix (shows)?
JC: No, not yet.
CN: The Netflix press release mentions this “chilling feeling” that your show creates. How do you go about getting that on screen in your opinion?
JC: I think it’s a combination of the directing and the music. The music is a huge factor in setting the mood.
CN: Did you have large budgets per episode? Can you talk about the production and the hours that went into it and the money that went into each episode?
JC: When the program was on NBC, we had a network budget, a reasonably good-sized budget.
CN: Obviously what sets this TV show apart from other TV shows is that you have a real impact on people’s lives. Is that one reason you continue to work at it, and are there other reasons?
JC: It is a wonderful feeling when you get results from a broadcast because you’ve gotten to know the people that you’ve done a story about.
And it makes such a difference in their lives that you can put somebody behind bars or find a son or daughter or put together someone who had to give up their baby for adoption years ago and they’re reunited.
I still get Christmas cards from someone in England who had to give her baby up for adoption and we did the story and her daughter was in the U.S. Friends saw the story and contacted our 800 number and they were reunited.
CN: How did this show change and evolve over its 260 episodes? Obviously there is a lot reporting, which I love, a lot of updates.
JC: I think if you looked at the show that we did in the first season compared to the shows that we did in our last season, the content remains the same. Technically there were improvements in the filmmaking process.
We went from shooting all on film to, as time went on, to more on video because video had gotten to the point that it looked as good as film. So it’s pretty much the technical things had changed rather than the content.
CN: When you look at the proliferation of crime and nonfiction television, how does “Unsolved Mysteries” fit into that?
JC: Our first program aired in January of 1987, and there weren’t any other shows like that at the time.
CN: But there is something to making a nonfiction story work on television. You look at something like “Narcos” and it’s a whole different animal now, and even Hollywood has latched onto nonfiction stories. What is key to making that jump?
JC: I’m not sure what you mean with your question.
CN: Sometimes with a nonfiction Hollywood movie, I’d rather watch the documentary. So with television and you’re working on nonfiction, it’s not always easy to make it compelling, I would think.
JC: That’s true. You need to start with a compelling story, and shoot it in a way that’s compelling, score it in a way that’ compelling, craft it in a way that keeps the audience glued to your presentation.
CN: Is the editing key to that?
JC: Oh absolutely, sure, it’s a big part.
CN: “Unsolved Mysteries” moves fast. You jump from story to story and you don’t have a chance to get bored.
The original reporting aspects, the updates. One of my favorite things is that you’ll say this man was captured in American Samoa, he served his time and was released. Who does that leg work and follow up?
JC: A lot of times our research producers keep track of law enforcement, and a lot of times law enforcement would contact us when a case is solved.
CN: So it’s just something that happened. It wasn’t something that you said ‘We must have this.’
JC: No, we always thought that the updates would be an important part of the show. And by maintaining contact and having a good relationship with the people that we did the stories with, we were constantly in the loop if there was a break in the case. People contacted us on the website as well.
CN: What impresses me is that you’ll have time served on there. Like so-and-so served eight years and now he’s out and lives in Oklahoma. That to me is compelling.
JC: We do, even now, on the stories that aired years ago, we update them. It’s gotten to the point that we’ll do an update on somebody who has been sentenced to a number of years in prison … and enough time has gone by and that he’s served his time, and we have to do another update to saying he’s been released from prison, for legal reasons.
CN: What would you want people to know about the show that you’re rarely asked about?
JC: I don’t have anything off the top of my head to answer you for that. There’s been so much press and publicity over the years, people are very familiar with the show.
We would just want people to know that it’s available on Lifetime where it’s being rerun, and that it’s available on Escape TV where it’s being rerun, and it’s available on Amazon Prime and Hulu, and encourage people to keep watching.
CN: Wow, when you list all that, it’s on more things than it’s ever been in a way.
JC: Yeah … right.
CF: Do you remember the show about Dorothy the psychic?
JC: Oh Dorothy Allison sure. She was something. Unfortunately she passed away, which is a shame. She was a lot of fun to work with, a very bubbly personality, and extremely passionate about working on cases.
CN: What shows do you watch yourself these days?
JC: I gotta confess I’m a sucker for “This is Us.” I like that show a lot.
CN: Do you watch any true crime?
JC: No, not too much. You know we’ve had a steady diet of it over the years. It’s kind of a busman’s holiday.
CN: What might prevent an episode from making the air? Say you ‘ve got everything nailed down and you’re really passionate about it and something gets in the way. What might that be?
JC: We haven’t had that problem.