How Netflix’s 'Making A Murderer' is Setting a New Standard for Social Impact Entertainment

This op-ed was originally published by The Huffington Post on January 11, 2016.

Pity the fools who wrote off the week between Christmas and New Year's as a wasteland for good television. Sure, there was some cable news coverage of the latest dust-up between Trump and Hillary, and a whole lot of hands being raised to the rafters over an amazing Aretha Franklin performance.

But those are like dust in the wind or vanishing Miss Universe crowns compared to the juggernaut released by Netflix over the holidays. If you haven't heard of their new series yet, Making a Murderer, well, chances are you will, and chances are you'll be pulled into it in a matter of days. Prepare yourself to become a victim of this binge-watch quicksand.

The premise of Making a Murderer is pretty simple -- over the last 10 years, series creators Laura Ricciardi and Moira Demos delved into the story of Steven Avery, a Wisconsin man who was at one time imprisoned for sexual assault and attempted murder, but who was later exonerated, only to later be accused of murdering another individual. Talk about your Law & Order-style plot twists.

But this goes beyond just your standard criminal procedure documentary. The phenomenon of Making a Murderer should send red alerts to networks and production companies, because the way viewers are reacting to this series is historical -- they're sharing their thoughts, theories, frustrations with the criminal justice system and suggestions for change in a way that is dominating the national entertainment conversation right now, and keeping the buzz about this series humming.

I can see this firsthand, because for the past two weeks, the most popular petition on Change.org has been one inspired by a viewer of the series, demanding that Steven Avery be set free. More than 400,000 people have signed on to the campaign, and just last week, President Obama issued a response to the campaign.

The guilt or innocence of Steven Avery is possibly something in which we'll never find total closure, but I'd argue that's only a small piece of this petition's magic. Instead what this petition shows is that viewers care about the content they're consuming, and they want -- they crave -- the ability to keep a story moving long after the end credits.

Alan Turing

Alan Turing

We've seen this before. Last year, a petition calling for the pardon of 49,000 men convicted for being gay in the UK -- based on the story of Alan Turing featured in The Imitation Game -- took off and gathered more than 500,000 signatures and raised international awareness about an injustice most people had never heard about until The Imitation Game came along. It was not only great buzz for the movie -- right at awards time, no less -- but it also gave viewers something tangible to do after they left the theater.

Of course, the podcast Serial also broke new ground here, too, during its first season when it covered the story of Adnan Syed -- a Maryland teenager who was convicted for murdering an ex-girlfriend. And this, too, had a petition calling for Adnan to receive a new trial. And more than 30,000 signatures later from listeners who became deeply invested in the podcast, Adnan got a hearing on new evidence.

These three examples are just scratching the surface of a trend that Hollywood could explode in 2016. When the last scene fades to black, there's a way to keep viewers talking and buzzing about a show, series or movie and it goes beyond just writing a Rotten Tomatoes review.

Think about how your viewers or listeners can do something. Because as Making a Murderer, Serial, and The Imitation Game prove, they want to -- in a way that not only keeps something relevant in a pop culture world where things melt faster than a snowflake on a hot plate, but may just drive impact and change history, too.


Michael A. Jones is Deputy Managing Director of North America at Change.org, where he leads a team of people who coach petition starters on how to tell their stories and win online campaigns. You can follow him on Twitter @michaelajones.