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The Fright Stuff

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Horror has been a television staple since the medium’s dawn. And with zombies, vampires, ghouls, psychopaths and monsters feasting on tasty ratings, a look at the pipeline during this development season shows the genre is more “undead” than ever.

The entire business sat up and took note in this Halloween month as AMC’s The Walking Dead returned to TV with 16.1 million total viewers, the best number in the show’s history and a higher figure than even NBC’s vaunted Sunday Night Football. That debut followed the previous week’s smash start for the FX anthology series, American Horror Story: Coven, which drew 5.5 million total viewers, with its 3.5 million 18-34s beating all broadcast rivals.

Earlier this fall, Fox’s Sleepy Hollow became the season’s first pickup among broadcast debuts, Lifetime ushered in Witches of East End, and The CW kept its run of chills going with vampire saga The Originals. This month’s New York Comic Con, with attendance of 133,000, has become a key destination for genre shows, and this year panels for The Walking Dead and Sleepy Hollow drew thousands of fans — with thousands more on line trying to get in.

Given the cyclical nature of programming strategies and viewer appetites, the malleability and marketability of horror make it a prized asset. Even without an explicit horror premise, influences and story lines can be integrated into a range of other genres. Sleepy Hollow, for example, certainly has some horror aspects to its DNA, but fantasy and wry comedy are also injected into the soufflé. NBC breakout drama The Blacklist, while hardly the textbook example, uses psychological terror to create tension.

Two standouts from the 2012-13 season that are soon to return, NBC’s Hannibal and Fox’s The Following, similarly melded genres to prove being called “creepy” can be a good thing. And NBC, having given fairy tales a dark twist with Grimm, is mounting a new Dracula this fall, with Jonathan Rhys Myers playing three roles in a modern spin on the story.

“There are a lot of ways to approach horror,” says Terrance Carter, Fox Broadcasting’s head of drama. Like its rivals, the network has a number of new horror-centric shows in the works, including a psychodrama, a horror show with a family element, a paranormal activity-type show and series that will have horror as a backdrop but not a central component. On cable, where A&E scored earlier this year with Bates Motel, a new take on American Psycho is in the works at FX, and AMC is incubating a Walking Dead spinoff for next year.

“Everyone has a different definition of what horror is,” says Thomas Vitale, executive vice president, programming and original movies, Syfy/Chiller. “But that is partly what makes it so popular and versatile.”

Story Trumps Gory

While the blood flows freely on much of these shows (even, to a surprising extent, on broadcast) and visual effects get cheaper and better every day, character is still key. Good horror works, Carter says, because it’s a prism for the human experience. It takes a relatable person and puts him or her in extraordinary circumstances, and viewers experience the result. Shows that deliver on that concept do well with viewers.

“TV lives and dies with characters,” says Bert Salke, president of Fox21, the cable and unscripted cable arm of 20th Century Fox TV. “Good horror, like good drama, is about character-building. The reason The Walking Dead is so successful is not because of the zombies, per se. It’s because of the characters and the situations they are in, and how they react. The Walking Dead just tells a fabulous story, and that’s necessary for the success of any genre.”

Conventional wisdom and historical movie box-office data would suggest horror is best suited to male audiences. Not so on television. In fact, research shows that many horror series skew more heavily toward women than men. Both FEARnet and Chiller lure more women than men on any given day. Watching a scary movie in the safety and comfort of their home could have something to do with it, says Peter Block, president and GM of FEARnet and a longtime Lionsgate exec who helped develop the Saw film franchise. More likely, Block notes, is that character-driven nature of the most successful horror shows on the dial today, a trait that generally appeals to female viewers, regardless of the genre.

The popularity of The CW’s Supernatural is really due to the family dynamics of the series’ characters, says showrunner Jeremy Carver. “The show started out with a ‘horror of the week’ approach,” he says. “But it’s really become more than that with the development of the brothers’ relationship with each other as well as other characters that have kept people coming back year after year.” Supernatural kicked off its ninth season on Oct. 8 and posted the series’ best ratings to date (2.5 million viewers and a 1.0 rating/3 share in adults 18-to-34; 1.2/3 in 18-to-49). Horror is working for the youth and female-skewed network: Together with the debut of The Originals, a spinoff of The Vampire Diaries, The CW celebrated its mostwatched Tuesday night in more than four years.

‘Horror is Like Coffee’

Part of what makes horror programming so versatile and sought-after is the wide range of sub-categories that permeate the genre. “Horror is like coffee. People drank black coffee for years but now, there’s a different coffee drink for every taste bud and you see coffee shops everywhere,” says FEARnet’s Block. “Horror has been around forever, but people weren’t supposed to talk about it other than around Halloween, even though the audiences were there all year long. Today, horror is more accessible and more acceptable, and it’s coming out of the shadows.”

Genre trends tend to come in spurts as well. Witches are popular this year. Zombies and vampires seem nearly incapable of under-performing, though the end is nigh for HBO’s blood-sucking Gothic True Blood. Carver believes viewers will find more horror lurking in non-traditional places. “Horror is spreading across genres, and I think we’ll continue to see that trend grow,” he says. “The Following is really a cop drama at its core. But it has upped the ante and has closed the gap with horror, making it a very scary show.”

Fox21’s Salke believes American Horror Story expanded the possibilities for TV horror. “It feels like [showrunners] Ryan Murphy and Brad Fulchuk have taken the genre to the next place. It certainly raised the bar for what will be shown on cable going forward,” he says. “It will be interesting to see where the category goes. Will we see blood and guts at the Saw level? Probably not, unless it’s one of the pay channels like Showtime or HBO. It would be hard to match the special effects of that kind of horror, for one thing. But that said, I think horror is headed to the blood-and-guts level on TV.”

Block agrees, to a point. “Viewers are looking for drama and titillation when it comes to watching horror,” he says. “Violence is par for the course. World situations set standards and boundaries for acceptance. But once one show goes in a specific direction, you can expect others to do the same.”

While AHS has been a force, Nick Grad, president of original programming for FX Networks and FX Productions, says he and his team are more motivated by storytelling than simple shock value. “There is horror, and then there’s horror that is all about the characters,” Grad says. “We don’t chase trends. We are motivated by writing and character development.” Finding the right balance among splatter, suspense and story can be tricky, especially when audiences, exposed to more content than any previous generation, are sensitive to things being watered down. Still, Grad believes that in the right showrunner’s hands, series with violent overtones can succeed by focusing on storytelling over gore.

Scare Tactics

Just because horror as a genre has become more mainstream doesn’t mean it’s easy to make. The TV landscape is littered with failed efforts to scare (ABC, for example, couldn’t move the Paranormal Activity crowd with found-footage series The River, executive produced by Paranormal helmer Oren Peli.) Spinoffs have been a staple Hollywood formula for success, and they will continue to spatter the airwaves going forward. But spinoffs and copycats can be an especially dicey proposition, Fox’s Carter warns, as the TV business tries to remain in step with the times. “People will always try to capitalize on hits, and you hope you don’t wear things down too quickly,” he says. “I think you’ll find knockoffs, and some will fail and some won’t.”

Block agrees. “Once you’ve figured out a trend, it’s easy to have missed it,” he says. “Still, the next new thing tends to circle back around at some point. I think the next new trend is going to be the little storyteller. Simple stories are always the best. Less will be more. And horror is not for everyone. It’s like creating reality programming. Everyone wants to do it, but you have to have a sense for it or it won’t work.” Audience expectations and financial models are, of course, different on cable vs. broadcast. Salke says the freedom cable networks have had should not be underemphasized.

“There is nothing harder than making a one-hour drama for one of the four broadcast networks,” he says. “There continues to be a blatant and loud difference in the subject matter and what a broadcaster can show and what a cable network can deliver, and it’s a huge advantage for cable networks. The gap in what works for cable and what works for broadcast is getting closer, but broadcast will never go as far as cable.”

More than with other diehard genres — the workplace sitcom, the cop procedural, you name it — viewers of horror want more than a place to hang out for an hour. If any proof of that is needed, it’s worth noting that the season premiere of Talking Dead, the Walking Dead after-show, earned AMC a happy 5.1 million viewers and a 2.6 adults 18-49 rating.

“People want to be taken for a ride,” says Carter. “They want the suspense and tension. There is a lot of fun to be had there.”