True crime pays in Knoxville: Jupiter Entertainment's 'dead' bodies turn up all over town

True crime pays for a Knoxville business that’s racked up dead bodies all over town.

The bodies aren't really dead, for this is reality television. But they represent real crimes filmed in Knoxville recreations by Jupiter Entertainment.

The Knoxville-based production company is a leader in TV's popular true crime genre. Its current shows include "Snapped," “Fatal Attraction,” "Homicide Hunter: Lt. Joe Kenda" and "Murder Calls.”

Begun in 1996 by founder and CEO Stephen Land, Jupiter isn't all about crime. In two decades its 75 series and specials include history-based programs, travel series and "docusoaps" like TLC’s "Welcome to Myrtle Manor" and Animal Planet’s "Wild West Alaska."

But retelling true crime is 90 percent of its current business.

"We do a lot of different shows, but I think we are especially known right now for true crime," Land said.

'Snapped' heads 'true crime' list

Jupiter's 33 past and current true crime shows and specials add up to more than 1,350 hours of programming. Names of many current shows read like a who-done-it catalog.

The Investigation Discovery network runs "Homicide Hunter," "Murder Calls," "Atlanta Child Murders," "An ID Murder Mystery," "Murder Chose Me" and "Murder Decoded." TVOne airs "Evidence of Innocence," "ATL Homicide," "Fatal Attraction" and Jupiter's recently acquired "For My Man."

Shows on Oxygen include "Snapped" and "Dying to Belong." A Weather Channel show, "Storm of Suspicion," focuses on cases that intertwine crime and weather.

Jupiter's also worked on "American Murder Mystery" episodes about such well-known crimes as the murder of Colorado child beauty queen JonBenet Ramsey. More of those mysteries are planned for 2019.

"Snapped" alone has earned Jupiter a place in TV history. Begun in 2004, the series profiling women as criminals recently aired its 400th episode. Filming on the 25th season is ongoing in Knoxville.

Celebrities like Kelly Ripa and Lady Gaga are "Snapped" devotees. The program changed a network and upped the interest in TV true crime. Oxygen originally aired mostly lifestyle/entertainment programs geared to women. After "Snapped," it rebranded itself into an all-crime network.

Knoxville — true crime capital?

Jupiter's work in Knoxville arguably makes the city television's true crime capital.

“We have 16 different true crime series that are in some phase, in or out of production," said Jupiter Senior Vice President and General Manager Robert Twilley. "We do approximately 200 hours of true crime programming a year. Every one of those shows Knoxville touches in some way or another."

With rare exceptions, Jupiter films all its crime show recreations — re-enactments of evil deeds and criminal investigations central to its programs — in Knoxville. In 2018 the company filmed more than 250 recreation shoots, working more than 1,000 days in Knox County.

While Jupiter also has offices in New York, its true crime production planning and much of the shows' editing and post-production happens at its West Knoxville headquarters.

Does that look like Atlanta to you?

Knoxville locations represent such places as Colorado Springs, Colorado, streets; Costa Rican beaches; Atlanta neighborhoods and Indiana farmhouses. A lavish, columned West Knoxville estate once stood in for Rome for a History Channel special about crime in the ancient world.

"We joke about how many different cities Knoxville has played," said Todd Moss, a Jupiter vice president of programming and an executive producer.

Downtown Knoxville's Volunteer Landing waterfront became New York's Chelsea Pier for a recently filmed "Fatal Attraction" episode. "I saw the pictures of the real thing, and you wouldn't know the difference," Moss said.

On average four to eight Jupiter shows film in and around Knoxville each week. East Tennessee mountains, rivers, lakes and Knoxville's different neighborhoods offer television diversity. It can sometimes be challenging to create a treeless southwestern desert or to make snowy winter Knoxville into sunny California.

Home interior and exterior scenes are filmed at Jupiter's West Knoxville warehouse. The warren of rooms in a strip mall can be anything from a Louisiana detective's office to a hospital room. Even storage room doors are used; their windows are labeled "county morgue."

"That warehouse can be 20 different things in a week," Moss said.

Not every part of a Jupiter true crime show is shot in Knoxville. Crews travel to film interviews with family members, friends, law enforcement, attorneys or journalists involved in the real-life cases. Shows mix those on-camera interviews with the Knoxville recreated scenes and voice-over narration.

Some shows' stars, like Carl Marino as "Homicide Hunter's" Joe Kenda or John Nicholson as Det. Rod Demery of "Murder Chose Me," come to Knoxville for their recreation work. But many actors picked for Knoxville scenes are local or from Nashville, Atlanta and Charlotte, North Carolina.

"Background" talent — also known as "extras" — are almost always East Tennesseans. Some may be actors; others people interested in being part of television scenes. Many law enforcement roles are played by real-life crime fighters hired through 5-0 Talent. That Knoxville talent agency is owned by career law enforcement officers.

When Land started Jupiter, he didn't begin with a true crime emphasis. He planned a "boutique documentary production company" that would make eight hours of documentaries each year.

Jupiter did those documentaries, often with a historic bent and about "whatever we found fascinating," Land said. Then, in 1998, Jupiter made "City Confidential" for A&E.

Narrated by actor Paul Winfield, the series focused on both a crime and the city where it happened. Land said Winfield once described the program as "'a travelogue with blood smeared all over it.'"

Actor Paul Winfield narrated "City Confidential."

After "City Confidential" Jupiter produced "Dominick Dunne's Power, Privilege and Justice" for Court TV. Those shows led to talks with Oxygen and the creation of "Snapped."

"Snapped" was about "women not being strictly the victim. We thought creatively this is a new space to explore," Land said. "Wow, little did we know that we would be making more than 400 episodes years later."

It's the stories — and the bodies

Jupiter executives know viewer interests and network wishes change and that TV true crime may not always be this popular. In 2019 the company's adding to its program diversity with "a broader mix of things coming into production," Twilley said.

Will true crime always be what Land terms "the belle of the ball?" Probably not, he said. But he doesn't see it ever vanishing. "People have been fascinated with true crime forever, so we don’t see that going away," he said.

"I think one reason why true crime will always be popular is people like to be armchair detectives," Moss said. "We are retelling true crime stories. But we are also making mini-movies."

Source: Knoxville News Sentinel, by Amy McRary

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Published January 4, 2019