Ghosts In The Machine

Ghost chasers embark at night to an old-butrestored federal building in Georgia to investigate reports of unusual happenings inside, near where a police officer was gunned down in 1890.

As the chasers — loaded up with night-view cameras, flashlights and recording devices — call out to contact the spirit of the officer, a loud bang permeates the silence of the hallway inside, sending the chasers scrambling first for their safety and then to see who or what may have been responsible for the noise.

The spine-tingling scene was from the current season of Syfy’s venerable paranormal series Ghost Hunters. While the chasers may have been frightened on camera, can ghosts, spirits and dead relatives scare up ratings on the small screen for cable networks?

With nearly half of all Americans believing in ghosts or spirits of dead people that come back into our lives, networks such as Destination America, Syfy, Travel Channel and LMN are turning to the afterlife for inspiration.

New reality series featuring haunted houses, ghostly apparitions — both friendly and evil — and other paranormal activity have sparked new life into ratings for some cable networks.

Executives said that these shows are getting a boost from a fanatical subculture that believes in the supernatural and paranormal, and flock to reality-based paranormal shows that reflect their beliefs. Nearly 65% of people believe there is life after death, with 43% of people believe the spirits of dead people can return in certain places or situations, according to a 2013 Huffington Post and YouGov poll.

In addition, a recent Pew Research survey reported that 18% of U.S. adults said they’ve actually interacted with a ghost, and 29% said they have felt in touch with someone who has died.

“There’s a large percentage of people who believe in the afterlife and its ties into this deep-seeded desire for life to continue afterwards and to also talk to love ones for closure, so I think that’s what we’re tapping into,” Marc Etkind, general manager for Destination America, said. This month alone, Etkind’s network is offering four new paranormal and monster-themed shows — Ghost Asylum, Ghost Stalkers, Amish Haunting and Alaska Monsters.

“There are a lot of unexplained things happening in the world and so I think the audience likes to go for that ride,” he added.

Viewers are turning to ghost-themed reality shows in part because even in this age of technology, viewers are still seeking ways to reach relatives and close friends who have passed away. Moreover, ominous news stories like the Ebola scare and the threat of terrorism can nudge viewers to seek answers about life and the afterlife, some executives said.

“There’s a natural inclination to wonder if it’s real of if it really exists,” said Bill McGoldrick, executive vice president of original content for Syfy, which on Wednesday (Oct. 22) will air the 200th episode of its signature paranormal series Ghost Hunters. Now in its ninth season, Ghost Hunters averages 1.7 million viewers and is the network’s second most-watched series among total viewers, adults 18-49 and adults 25-54.

“I think anybody, whether they are a sci-fi fan or not, wants to answer the question of whether there’s an afterlife or are there spirits among us,” McGoldrick added. “That will always be at the core of what drives this stuff.”

Surprisingly, paranormalthemed shows are also striking a chord with female viewers, who are intrigued with emotional and haunting stories of the afterlife. Network executives said female viewers make up 55% to 60% of the audience for most paranormal-based reality shows.

Destination America’s Ghost Asylum, in which a team of ghost chasers look for the undead in abandoned asylums, launched Sept. 9 and already ranks as the network’s most watched series ever among women 25-54 and women 18-49, said network officials.

On LMN, several paranormal shows are resonating with its target female viewers including the network’s most-watched series My Haunted House, which through reenactments tells stories of people living in terror.

“There’s a spiritual fascination in things outside of ourselves and understanding what energies may exist beyond what we know,” Laura Flury, vice president and head of programming and development for LMN, said. “I also think there’s something comforting and sometimes scary about the fact that when people pass on there might still be a way to communicate with them.”

While paranormal-themed series are not new — shows like In Search of … in the 1970s, and the more recent Paranormal State and Celebrity Ghost Stories, have all chronicled tales of the unknown — the success of genre-based Hollywood films and scripted TV series have bolstered the category.

The Paranormal Activity film franchise has generated nearly $390 million in box office revenue over five films since 2009. On television, horror-themed shows like AMC’s The Walking Dead and FX’s American Horror Story have generated record ratings for their respective networks. The Oct. 12 fifth-season premiere of The Walking Dead drew an AMC-record 17.5 million viewers, while American Horror Story: Freak Show — the fourth iteration of the anthology series — drew a network record 10 million viewers in live-plus-3 ratings, Nielsen said.

Other shows like WGN America’s Salem, Fox’s Sleepy Hollow, FX’s The Strain, HBO’s True Blood and Netflix’s Hemlock Grove have also drawn significantly high viewership within the genre.

“The genre has gained a lot of momentum over the past few years and networks are beginning to see that,” said Ross Babbit, senior vice president of programming and development for Travel Channel, which airs the highly rated Ghost Adventures, now in its 10th season. “The paranormal audience is so passionate about the genre that they’ll tend to watch and rate all the shows in the space.”

Added Etkind: “This genre has proved popular from the beginning of TV and these are great American campfire stories,” he said. “You think about the Salem witchcraft trials and Sleepy Hollow — these are stories that have been passed on for generations in America. Every town has that building or asylum that you don’t go into.”

Even nonbelievers are tuning into the paranormal reality series genre, if nothing else for the entertainment value, according to Babbit.

“You watch because you either believe or you don’t, or you’re entertained by the people who are trying to find ghosts,” he said. “I don’t know if you have to believe, but it’s really entertaining. Who really knows what the truth is, but these guys are very passionate about what they do.”

Still skepticism abounds, and it’s not clear how long the genre can deliver consistent ratings. Destination America’s Etkind maintains the genre is alive and well for now.

“With the belief rates at record highs there’s always going to be room for a new creative idea in this space,” he said. “These types of shows have been on TV for a long time and they’re here to stay … We’re just looking for new ways to tell them.”

R. Thomas Umstead

R. Thomas Umstead serves as senior content producer, programming for Multichannel News, Broadcasting + Cable and Next TV. During his more than 30-year career as a print and online journalist, Umstead has written articles on a variety of subjects ranging from TV technology, marketing and sports production to content distribution and development. He has provided expert commentary on television issues and trends for such TV, print, radio and streaming outlets as Fox News, CNBC, the Today show, USA Today, The New York Times and National Public Radio. Umstead has also filmed, produced and edited more than 100 original video interviews, profiles and news reports featuring key cable television executives as well as entertainers and celebrity personalities.