Skip to main content

Halloween Comes Early — and Stays

With Halloween growing in popularity among adults — it’s the second-biggest retail holiday after Christmas — nearly a dozen cable networks are offering Halloween-themed marketing and programming stunts throughout the month of October.

Network executives hope the Halloween stunts — which include everything from horror-based movies and original programming to network-sponsored haunted houses — help scare up new and younger viewers looking for a frightful thrill.

“Halloween is not just for kids anymore,” Thomas Vitale, executive vice president of programming and original movies for Syfy and Chiller, said. “There are adult parties, horror movies in the theaters and on television — it’s become something for everyone. There’s no agenda to Halloween — there’s no cultural significance, and it’s not a religious holiday. It’s really a secular celebration for everyone.”

Indeed, the growing popularity of the Halloween season is downright scary. More than seven in 10 Americans will spend nearly $80 on decorations, costumes and candy, up from $72 last year. Overall Halloween spending is expected to exceed $8 billion in revenue this year, according to the National Retail Federation.

Actress Morgan Fairchild attributes consumers’ willingness to spend money on Halloween decorations in spite of a tough economic environment to their need to escape everyday problems.

“The two things you can count on when there’s a recession and people want to escape: You’re going to have comedies and you’re going to have horror films,” Fairchild, who is starring in Syfy’s original movie American Horror House, part of the network’s “31 Days of Halloween” promotion, said.

“Those are the great things that take people out of themselves and take them to another place,” she added.

The consumer appeal of Halloween is not lost on the cable industry. In addition to Syfy, networks such as AMC, TCM,  FearNet, ABC Family, BBC America, Starz and Disney Channel are offering Halloween- themed programming and marketing stunts, most of which are already up and running. Kids-targeted Disney Channel, for example, last week premiered most of its “Monstober” Halloween-themed episodes for such hit shows as A.N.T Farm, Good Luck Charlie and Jessie, as well as its original movie Girl vs. Monster, which drew 4.9 million viewers in its Oct. 12 premiere.

Turner Classic Movies (TCM) has already begun airing classic horror films, such as 1945’s House of Dracula and 1968’s Night of the Living Dead, every Wednesday night in October, said TCM senior vice president of programming Charles Tabesh. The network’s annual “Classic Horror” offerings will culminate with a 24-hour classic horror movie stunt that will include the original Frankenstein (1931), The Mummy (1932) and The Wolf Man (1941) movies.

Horror-themed network FearNet will air a 24-hour marathon of the horror anthology film Trick ‘r Treat starring True Blood's Anna Paquin as part of its month-long Halloween-themed schedule. “This is the only time of year that other networks concentrate on the horror realm, while we do this all year long,” said Sarah Shannon, director of programming for FearNet.

AMC kicked off its 16th annual Fearfest stunt with a record ratings performance from the Oct. 14 debut of The Walking Dead. The zombie-themed series generated 10.9 million viewers -- a record for an ad-supported basic cable series episode.

Tom Halleen, senior vice president of programming and scheduling at AMC said the 19-day promotion – which will feature 417 hours of mostly horror-themed movies like the Friday The 13th, Predator and Halloween – is the network’s most watched stunt and helps AMC reduce its primetime viewer median age by 10 years.

He added starting Fearfest two weeks before Halloween just builds more momentum for its horror offerings.

 “To have this type of themed-based stunt always worked as a great opportunity to encourage viewers to come spend time with us,” he said. “I think it’s a great integration of our original content and of our movie library.”

Other networks like Syfy are extending their Halloween marketing efforts beyond television by partnering with retail companies and other entities to build brand awareness. The network has tapped The Hershey Company as an advertising partner for its "31 Days of Halloween" promotion, which includes on-air spots and signage throughout the month, according to Vitale. Syfy has also developed a retail partnership with costume company Spirit Halloween that offers consumers a 20% discount off an item at any Spirit store nationwide, said network officials.

In New York, Syfy will work with the city’s parks department to sponsor haunted houses around the city’s five boroughs. On air the network will premiere Oct. 27 an original movie, Rise of the Zombies, while on Oct. 31 the network will telecast a live, end-of-season episode of its FX makeup-themed competition show Face Off, according to Vitale.

The network will also feature new episodes of established series Paranormal Witness and Ghost Hunters, according to Vitale. “Halloween is an escapist holiday for everyone–the celebration of horror and frights and scares is cathartic,” he said. “Everyone can just sit back and have this escapist fun.”

TCM’s Tabesh said he’s not concerned about the glut of Halloween-themed programming on cable hurting tune-in for TCM’s classic programming. He added even though the network plays virtually the same classic films each year, viewers continue to tune in and watch.

Even though TCM isn’t rated, he said the movies generate a lot of positive chatter on the network’s various branded social media sites.

“There have been so many great horror films made over the years, so it feels great to air them given the time of the year,” he said. “People just love seasonal programming, even though it might feel predictable or expected -- it’s what people expect, want and are comfortable with.”

R. Thomas Umstead
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.