Network TV's Best True Crimes Shows (Including 'Dateline'), Ranked

Dateline Keith Morrison NBC
Patrick Randak / NBC

What is the best true crime show on network TV? Long before true crime became the booming genre behind podcasting, network television was on the frontier. NBC (“Dateline”), CBS (“48 Hours”), and ABC (“20/20”) have had their competing news magazines on the ground working to report on the shocking crimes that unfold across the country, mainly murders. Each show does so in its unique style, with some having a more appealing take than others.

Because of that, when “Dateline,” “20/20,” and “48 Hours” cover the same crime story, it is not a massive eye roll. Inevitably, one show shares a detail the other left out of its coverage. Sometimes, it takes three shows to learn the truth, or at least gather the whole picture. This, leading one to ask, which one of the three does it the best?

You will not find Errol Morris’s reenactments or Netflix’s cinematic take on any of the network news magazines. You will find a tremendous ability to streamline often complicated human interest pieces to convey a coherent narrative that tells the story of who and why without an adaptation’s “artistic license.”  Here is who does it the best.

20/20 Amy Robach ABC
Lorenzo Bevilaqua / ABC

#3 (Bronze): “20/20”

ABC’s stalwart news magazine has upped its game in recent years by taking a more documentation approach to its rendering. Gone is a reporter’s one-on-one interview with relevant subjects. Instead, “20/20” journalists talk to the camera about the facts of the case. The confessional style approach still shows select excerpts from the interviews, allowing viewers to see how the question got asked.

Overall, the makeover has worked to smooth out the edges of “20/20” and its style. For those who prefer to know about the aftermath of the lives involved in the cases, “20/20” provides insight, as seen in the recent “Gone Girl” episode. To its credit, though, “20/20” tends to cover crime stories its competitors would not. It often revisits “old” cases and offers a wide range of commentators.

In a world where it is difficult to provide new details, “20/20” dares to do that. There are often answers to the probing questions it begs with the various talking heads providing info. While there are usually not as many interviews with victims’ families, “20/20” consistently offers a two-hour take on a case, which allows for a rather thorough investigation.

Final Verdict: “20/20” earns the bronze with its slick storytelling. It just needs a warmer touch.

Must-See Episode: “Murder and Scandal in Chicagoland” and “The Affair”

48 Hours The Case Against Skyler Richardson Erin Moriarty CBS
“48 Hours” Screenshot / CBS

#2 (Silver): “48 Hours”

When you want to know the facts, “48 Hours” is there for you. Unlike its counterparts, the series tends to focus on the investigation and the courtroom showdown that follows. Lately, “48 Hours” has focused on cases that have not gotten entirely resolved, abiding by less of a formula.

“48 Hours” has recently focused more on breaking cases without resolution in a possible bid to beat competitors to the story. Its competitors rarely do that. In another differential, CBS’ signature news magazine occasionally takes a dive outside of murder mysteries into mysteries, period.

The CBS series also takes a look at lesser-known cases, and the steely, competent voice of Erin Moriarty has been an enormous asset to it. In a substantial differential, “48 Hours” does not repeat itself either. As should be the case, it has too much to share.

Final Verdict: CBS has an ambitious, informative series. One of its only restraints is its lack of two-hour episodes. Squeezing some stories into one hour is simply not doable, and it deserves more time to prove what it can do with extra time.

Must Watch Episode(s): “The Case Against Nicole Addimando” and “What Ever Happened to Mary Day?”

Dateline Josh Mankiewicz NBC
Patrick Randak / NBC

#1 (Gold): “Dateline NBC”

Simply the best. NBC is the home to great dramas and the greatest of all news magazines. It has its formula down to a T, and if you watch old episodes, you have to respect how long it has had a handle on things. “Dateline” is so legendary that its reporters’ voices provide an untold familiarity that sparks something in viewers.

Keith Morrison, Josh Mankiewicz, and Dennis Murphy are “Dateline” veterans turned icons. Andrea Canning is joining those ranks as her number of episodes increases. Without this team conveying the stories the way they do, “Dateline” would be largely adrift. “The Widower” proved NBC can roll with the punches of not having its color commentary. It is the missing piece that made the story un-“Dateline.”

Keith Morrison and his colleagues make “Dateline,” well, “Dateline.” Their assuring voices provide fact after fact with sensitive interviews that never feel exploitative, or devoid of empathy. “Dateline” is teeming with It.

Final Verdict: Network coverage of true crime does not get any better than “Dateline.” It is the winner, thanks to its thorough coverage, compassion, and presentation.

Must-See Episode: “The Phone Call” and “The Pink Gun Mystery”


Closing Thoughts

To its massive credit, “Dateline,” “48 Hours,” and “20/20” often take a step back to examine the ripple effect of the crimes they are covering. In many cases, viewers are made aware of the carnage left by many domestic cases wherein the killer’s family raises the children. Thus, causing the victim’s family to lose their murdered loved one and a future relationship with their grandchild/niece/nephew, et cetera.

That is the second crime wave that often sweeps up countless families, leaving more mourning in their wake. As the news magazines astutely cover, it is a battle the victim’s family has to win or risk losing another member forever through alienation. A convicted killer can still write history from their prison cell.

How To Watch

“Dateline” airs on Fridays at 9 or 10 p.m. ET on NBC. You will have to check your local listings to find out which time as it depends on if there will be a two-hour episode or not. This year, there will not be any interference from “The Blacklist” as it is moving to Thursday nights for Season 9.

Season premieres are revving up for all three of the true crime series. “48 Hours” has gone first. Its 2021 season premiere happened on Saturday, September 18 at 10 p.m. ET on CBS. Roughly a week later, “Dateline” will return for its 2021 season opener on Friday, September 24 at 9 p.m. ET on NBC. “20/20” will be the last to bow with its fall 2021 season premiere on October 8 at 9 p.m. on ABC.

“48 Hours” can be found on Saturdays at 10 p.m. ET on ABC, while “20/20” airs opposite “Dateline” on Friday at 9 p.m. ET on ABC. Do you agree with the show that won gold? Sound off in the comments section below.