America's Most Wanted

The Academy of Television Arts & Sciences Foundation Presents




First aired on the seven FOX Stations in February 1988, America's Most Wanted is a U.S. reality program featuring segments which reenact crimes of wanted fugitives,. Two months later, the show moved to the FOX Broadcasting Corporation and its affiliates. Produced by FOX Television Stations Productions (a unit of FOX Television Stations Inc.), America's Most Wanted may be cited as the first example of the "manhunt" type of reality shows. Consistently winning solid ratings throughout its history, it has also been credited as a television show which doubles as both entertainment and "public-service." Through the use of a toll-free "hotline," it elicits the participation of viewers in helping to capture known suspects depicted on the program, thus garnering praise and cooperation from law enforcement officials.

As a reality program, the style and content of America's Most Wanted closely follows that of other program types gathered under this broad industry label (e.g.: "tabloid" newsmagazines, video-verite and reenacted crime, rescue and manhunt shows, and family amateur video programs). Central to each of these genres is a visible reference to, or dramatization of, real events and occupations. Thus, while the stories told on America's Most Wanted stem from "real life" incidents, they are not comprised of "actual" live footage (with the exception of recorded testimony from the "real" people involved). Rather, incidents of criminality and victimization are reenacted, and in an often intense and involving manner. This dramatic component, particularly as it entails a subjective appeal, is a dominant feature of reality programmes, which tend to accentuate the emotional for their effectivity. Viewers are thus asked to empathize and identify with the experiences of the people represented on the show, especially insofar as these experiences involve social or moral dilemmas.

Relying upon a structure similar to that used by television newsmagazines--which move back and forth from promotional trailer to anchor to report--each episode of America's Most Wanted is divided into a number of segments which retell and reenact a particular crime. Beginning with an up-date on how many viewers' tips have thus far led to the capture of fugitives featured on the show, the program then moves to the host or "anchor," who introduces the program and the first story segment. Using both actors and live footage of the "real people" involved, these story segments are highly dramatized, making liberal use of quick edits, rock music underscoring, sophisticated camera effects and voice-overs. In addition to supplying a narrative function, the voice-overs also include actual testimony of the event from police, victims and the criminals involved, thus emphasizing and appealing to the subjective.

The program resembles the tabloid newsmagazine genre in its often exaggerated language, also used in promotional trailers and by the host to describe the crimes depicted on the show (e.g.: "Next, a tragic tale of obsession"). Additionally, and again paralleling qualities of tabloid TV, there are noticeable efforts towards self-promotion or congratulation; the host, law enforcement officials, and even captured fugitives repeatedly hype the policing and surveillance functions of the show. And yet, despite these consistencies with a denigrated tabloid TV genre, America's Most Wanted is distinct in its appeal to and affiliation with both "the public" and the police.

The program is hosted by John Walsh, who "anchors" America's Most Wanted from Washington, D.C. Given the show's cooperation with federal law agencies, such as the FBI and the U.S. Marshall Service, its broadcast from this location acts to further associate it with law enforcement institutions. Walsh, whose son was abducted and murdered in 1981, is a nationally-known advocate for missing and exploited children. As part of its program format, America's Most Wanted airs a weekly feature on missing children, and has created "The Missing Child Alert," a series of public service bulletins which are made available to all television stations, regardless of network affiliation.

Through its toll-free hotline (1-800-CRIME-TV), which operates seven days and averages 2,500 calls a week, the program has assisted in the apprehension of hundreds of fugitives, and thus earned the appreciation of law enforcement agencies. Additionally, America's Most Wanted sees itself as enabling a cathartic process; offering not only legal justice, but psychological resolution to victims of crime. In both these respects, America's Most Wanted may be said to move away from much of the fixed voyeurism of reality shows, towards a more active "public" function. And yet, do manhunt shows such as America's Most Wanted simply temper the tabloid's spectacle into a new form of "vigilante voyeurism?" Do such shows not only feed into, but actively promote, a public's fears regarding an ever present criminal threat? Such questions, regarding the aims, the intended audience and the effectivity of America's Most Wanted's public function, must be addressed.

-Beth Seaton


John Walsh


Lance Heflin, Joseph Russin, Paul Sparrow



April 1988-August 1990   Sunday 8:00-8:30

September 1990-July 1993 Friday 8:00-9:00

July 1993-January 1994   Tuesday 9:00-10:00

January 1994-- Saturday   9:00-10:00


Bartley, Diane. "John Walsh: Fighting Back." Saturday Evening Post (Indianapolis, Indiana), April 1990.

Cosgrove, Stuart. "Crime can Often Become an Accessory to Fiction on TV." New Statesman & Society (London), 7 December 1990.

"F.B.I. Gives programs Exclusives on Fugitives." The New York Times, 15 September 1991.

Finney, Angus. "Gutter and Gore." New Statesman & Society (London), 9 September 1988.

Friedman, David. "Wanted: Lowlifes and High Ratings." Rolling Stone (New York), 12 January 1989.

Garneau, George. "FBI to Newspapers: Watch Television." Editor & Publisher (New York), 21 September 1991.

Nelson, Scott A. "Crime-time Television." The FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin (Washington, D.C.), August 1988.

Prial, Frank J. "Freeze! You're on TV." Reader's Digest (Pleasantville, New York), March 1989.

"Television: Crime Pays." The Economist (London), 10 June 1989.

Thomas, Bill. "Finding Truth in the Age of 'Infotainment.'" Editorial Research Reports (Washington, D.C.: Congressional Quarterly, Inc.), 19 January 1990.

White, Daniel R. "America's Most Wanted." ABA Journal (Chicago), October 1989.

John Walsh on the evolution of America's Most Wanted
John Walsh on hosting America's Most Wanted
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John Walsh

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John Walsh on the evolution of America's Most Wanted
John Walsh on hosting America's Most Wanted

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