Although the ratings juggernaut Unsolved Mysteries technically debuted in 1987 and lasted until 2001, it was at its peak in the 90s. For the decade of the 90s, it seemed like at any given moment you could catch an Unsolved Mysteries rerun somewhere on cable television.
TV of the 90s: Unsolved Mysteries
Can you picture Robert Stack NOT in a trench coat?
Unsolved Mysteries began as a way to bring "milk carton kids" to life. In the 80s, pictures of missing children were put on the backs of milk cartons. Frankly, this wasn't too successful. The producers of Unsolved Mysteries realized that they could hit the sweet spot between "lurid entertainment" and "sanctimonious do-gooder-ism" with their winning formula in which a crime was lovingly recreated, and then the audience was urged to phone a tipline if they had information that could solve the case.
(The show's official website claims that "More than 50 percent of the wanted fugitives profiled on Unsolved Mysteries have been captured - most as a result of tips from our viewers." I have my doubts about that claim, but I'll let it slide.)
Robert Stack quickly became known as "the Unsolved Mysteries" guy. I doubt there is any American who lived through the 90s who doesn't picture Robert Stack in a trench coat and fedora.
Sociologists often talk about America's "Culture of Fear" but I don't think Unsolved Mysteries has ever been properly credited for its role in perpetuating this problem. Unsolved Mysteries pointed out that literally nowhere is safe. It told the stories of people who were abducted from their homes, murdered in grocery store parking lots, shot while they drove home from work, knifed at the post office. The show had a tone of grinding dread, from its eerie theme song to the ever-present fog effects during Robert Stack's intro segments.
At one point I had spent so much time watching Unsolved Mysteries re-runs that I started to hear Stack's narration in my head as I went about my daily life. As I left my apartment to go to the store I might think, "She was last seen leaving her apartment in jeans and a black T-shirt. Sources believe she was heading to the grocery store." As I left the store I might think, "She was last seen leaving the grocery store in jeans and a black T-shirt, presumably on her way home with the groceries." It was a disturbing experience to say the least, and once I realized what was happening, I immediately stopped watching the show.