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Fear Factor

Cable networks are jolting ratings with supernatural and horror-themed scripted series that are slaying both male and female viewers.

Following the success of horror/supernaturalthemed shows like AMC’s The Walking Dead, FX’s anthology supernatural series American Horror Story, MTV’s Teen Wolf, TNT’s Falling Skies, HBO’s True Blood, Game of Thrones and The Leftovers and Netflix’s Hemlock Grove, programmers are rolling out nearly a dozen new genrebased series that have either launched or will launch in 2014. They hope to thrill viewers with plenty of action, strong storylines and lots of scares.

“[Horror/supernatural] is a massively popular broad entertainment genre,” Syfy president Dave Howe said. “It’s the most mainstream genre, and I think the broadcast and cable networks have recognized that popularity and are reaching a new generation of viewers that are reading fantasy novels and playing [genre-based] video games.”

Indeed, from theatrical box-office hits such as The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, World War Z, The Conjuring and Godzilla to top-selling video games as Call of Duty: Ghosts and Titanfall, shows with horror or supernatural themes are drawing fans across multiple platforms.

On cable, the genre has been slicing its way across network lineups. For one, Syfy’s freshman apocalyptic-themed series Helix has already been green-lighted for a second season after averaging more than 2 million viewers in its winter season run. The same goes for Showtime’s supernatural-themed series Penny Dreadful, renewed for a second season two months ago.

Other shows waiting in the wings to launch this month include Lifetime’s post-apocalyptic drama series The Lottery, in which a national lottery is held to determine surrogates for the last 100 human embryos; and FX’s The Strain, in which current-day New York is infected by a vampire virus.

One of the reasons why horror and suspense shows are performing well on cable is their ability to draw a wide range of viewers, including women who are not traditionally known to be big fans of the genre.

For instance, FX said its Emmy-winning American Horror Story skewed 59% female during its third season. AMC’s zombie drama The Walking Dead — cable’s most watched show — is also the most watched series on cable among female viewers, besting both scripted and reality content.

Most of cable’s horror and supernatural series — which often pair intricate storylines with graphic violence — appeal to female viewers looking for thrills and suspense, FX CEO John Landgraf said. And the genre’s shows feature more involved, soap opera-like storylines that can attract women despite their often grisly scenes, WGN America and Tribune Studios president and general manager Mark Cherniss added.

WGN America’s first original series, Salem, which revisits the period of the Salem, Mass. witch trials, scared up 1.5 million viewers in the supernatural- themed show’s April premiere episode, the network’s highest-rated show in more than seven years, according to the network.

“Horror/supernatural shows can offer action, scares, drama and romance — there are a lot of different elements that fit into the supernatural drama that allow those things to play right next to each other, where in other genres it’s a lot harder to fit all those elements together into one show,” Cherniss said.

Michael Wright, president, head of programming for TNT, TBS and Turner Classic Movies, added that the development of quality, CGI-enhanced special effects has allowed networks to deliver movie-quality content in a series. TNT’s Michael Bay-produced series The Last Ship, which follows a U.S. Navy destroyer carrying the antidote for a global pandemic that has wiped out 80% of the world’s population, is currently the most watched new series on cable this year, averaging more than 5 million viewers.

“You can now make something that’s pretty epic in scope in terms of the storytelling and compete with theatrical films where the viewer doesn’t feel let down,” said Wright. “We could imagine these stories 10 years ago but couldn’t execute them. Now you can.”

On-screen editing standards have also changed, allowing cable and broadcast networks to depict more graphic and often gory scenes that are typical of the genre, making the shows more visually appealing to viewers.

“Television back in the broadcast-network era really had to censor the genre to the point where it seemed second-rate to what a theatrical film could put forth for fans of the horror genre,” Landgraf said. “But in the cable era, the networks can put pretty graphic stuff on the air that looks to sustain a story and a group of characters for longer than a two-hour movie. The fans also want story and character development, and I think television right now is able to deliver that in the horror genre.”

And network executives said they’re not worried about oversaturating the market for horror and supernatural shows, adding that there are still a lot of stories to be told within the genre.

“As long as you’re bringing to those different shows a distinctive voice, great casting and a unique approach to the storytelling, I think you can stand out,” Turner’s Wright said. “It’s a marvelous blank canvas for great storytellers.”

Syfy has looked to up the ante on its schedule with the recent debut of Dominion, in which archangels battle each other with the survival of humankind in the balance. The series drew 2 million viewers in its June 16 premiere, above the network’s 970,000 viewer primetime average for June.

The network also has on deck a remake of the 1995 theatrical sci-fi thriller 12 Monkeys, along with several other series that it hopes will keep the network competitive in the growing supernatural/horror genre.

“We recognize that there is an explosion of competition, so I think what we have to do is more of what we do best,” Howe said. “We are the experts in the space and so we’re in the throes of emphasizing and amplifying our high quality, provocative and smart storytelling.”