November 29, 2023

Considering Next Steps for ‘Wanted’

“With your call, the bad guys fall,” the host and producer John Walsh likes to say, reminding his viewers that he’s working in partnership with them — and with law enforcement — to capture fugitives. He says the show has assisted in 1,149 captures since its premiere in 1988, an average of one a week.

But the weekly broadcasts of “America’s Most Wanted” are almost up, at least on Fox, which said on Monday that it was demoting the show to quarterly specials, starting in the fall. Mr. Walsh was caught off guard by the effective cancellation; he said in an interview on Tuesday afternoon that he was planning to seek other outlets for the show. “I really have to weigh all my options,” he said.

To call “America’s Most Wanted” merely a show may diminish the public-service role that Mr. Walsh and others say it performs. (The United States Marshals Service, for instance, calls it a “tremendous partner.”)

For decades it has been a visual and visceral version of the government’s bulletins about fugitives, and for that it has received acclamations from all manner of public figures, including President Obama, who was interviewed by Mr. Walsh last year for the 1,000-episode anniversary.

“It’s a remarkable record,” Mr. Obama said, referring to the capture count.

Equally remarkable is the show’s cultural influence, now spanning a generation. Its true-crime storytelling and its reliance on re-enactments of events have inspired producers across the television landscape, including even some those of behind the scripted crime procedurals that now rule prime time.

“ ‘America’s Most Wanted’ is an example of the reality genre in its initial stages,” said Cynara M. Medina, a professor who teaches media courses at Trinity University in San Antonio.

Mr. Walsh, for his part, sniffs at what the genre has become. In the interview, after he mentioned “American Idol” and “The Biggest Loser,” he labeled them “the dumbing-down-of-society shows.”

So much of the success of “America’s Most Wanted” over the years has been wrapped up in Mr. Walsh’s personality — and in his identity as a crime victim and an activist. After his young son Adam was abducted and murdered in 1981, he testified before Congress and campaigned — quite successfully — for tough-on-crime laws. He helped to form the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, and in 1988 he started producing and hosting “Most Wanted.”

In 1988 the nation’s crime rate had been climbing for years, and the climate of fear had been climbing even faster. Within that climate “Most Wanted” was one of the first hits for the Fox network, then brand-new.

Some say that “America’s Most Wanted” exploited that environment, contributing to an inflated sense of the threat of serious crime. In his 2008 book, “The Science of Fear,” the author Daniel Gardner asserts that Mr. Walsh and others who have come since, like Nancy Grace, a commentator on HLN, have for years misrepresented reality. Mr. Gardner wrote of this “universe of true crime” that “sad and horrible tales are the stock in trade.”

“Accurate statistics,” he continued, “are rarely or never mentioned.”

Mr. Walsh’s answer to that charge was pointed: “We turn down 50 cases a week.”

“We live in a dangerous world,” he added.

Like virtually all other shows that have been on television for decades, “America’s Most Wanted” has given up audience share over time. It has averaged between five and six million viewers this season.

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