Networks' Scary Strategy

Cable networks across the dial and over the Internet are eagerly chanting the same mantra to viewers: Be afraid; be very afraid.

Spooky fare—whether paranormal or horror-themed—has yielded ratings spikes for traditional linear players like Sci Fi, Lifetime and WE, with A&E hoping to cash in next. And digital upstarts like Comcast's FearNet and NBC Universal's digital channel Chiller have nothing to cheer but fear itself.

They're giving TV audiences more than classic horror movies. The newest breed of reality thrill series mix the filmic look of fright-time classics with digital technology and true-life characters and incidents.

Most emblematic of this new breed of scary TV is A&E's Paranormal State, a reality show from Laguna Beach producers Go Go Luckey, which focuses on a team of Penn State students who travel around the country trying to help people spooked by spirits. The show launches Dec. 10 and features a blend of horror-film techniques (plentiful point-of-view shots, constant foreground matter) and the use of new cameras like the FLIR, which picks up thermal readings.

“Any show that takes you away from what you're doing and thrills you is good storytelling,” says Go Go Luckey Partner and Paranormal Executive Producer Gary Auerbach. “When you're dealing with something in the reality space that's scary, that double-intensifies the feeling.”

Several reasons explain the surge in this reality fare. Practicality certainly plays a part: The shows draw younger viewers and typically require one-quarter the budget of a scripted program. They also, perhaps surprisingly, often skew slightly more female than male—Sci Fi's Ghost Hunters pulls 53% females, says the network.

But there are more profound reasons. Programming execs point to research showing that right after Sept. 11, viewers weren't ready to be scared. More than six years later, viewers are more prepared for TV where the security threat level is higher.

“In a post 9/11 era, [people didn't] want to be emotionally challenged by dramas that tackled horror scenarios,” says Sci Fi General Manager Dave Howe. “Years later, there's a resurgence because people are feeling more secure.”

Networks have been eager to respond. On Jan. 9, Sci Fi premieres an international spin-off of the spook-chase Ghost, and it upped the episode count for chilling investigation show Destination Truth for its second season. A live two-hour Halloween special of Ghost drew more than 2.8 million viewers, helping lead Sci Fi to its best performance in the 18-49 demo on a Wednesday since 2002.

Lifetime recently completed seasons of America's Psychic Challenge and Lisa Williams. A reality show about the medium/clairvoyant, Lisa Williams grew 33% from first to second season. It also helped launch its lead-in, the competition series America's Psychic Challenge, which grew to an average of 1.6 million viewers for its finale.

In the works elsewhere is a slate of original and acquired series and specials on WE, Cablevision's women's network. On the heels of debuting a second season of John Edward Cross Country, featuring the famed medium, WE green-lit a slew of similar shows with titles like Rescue Mediums, Extreme Ghost Stories and Abducted by UFOs, in a programming block called “WE Go Supernatural.”

FearNet, the video-on-demand/broadband channel Comcast launched on Halloween 2006 with studios Lionsgate and Sony, is notching more viewers than it had banked on. The network, which has grown distribution to include Cox, saw a respectable 10.5 million movie-views on VOD in October on Comcast alone and averaged a lengthy 74 minutes for viewing of an original film online.

NBCU's VOD channel Chiller, the digital home for the company's horror-themed library content, is seeing success with viewer-created content for its Website, drawing some 300 upstart filmmakers to its “Dare to Direct” contest this fall. Chiller seeks to grow TV distribution beyond its 13.5 million homes.

In programming all this paranormal fare, executives are tapping into another familiar appetite among viewers: hunger for the unknown. That's harder to come by in an era of the 24-hour news cycle, with cable networks and the Internet bombarding audiences with competing facts.

“So much of the world is known now; there are few mysteries with Google Maps and CNN and coverage of everything,” says Rob Sharenow, A&E's senior VP of non-fiction and alternative programming. “This [programming] is an area that's very mysterious and unknown.”

FearNet, which targets the 18-to-34-year-old horror fan, has added to its 1,000 movie titles on VOD with original content such as Catacombs, a film by the producers of the “Saw” franchise. It drew nearly 700,000 VOD views in one month. Its live stream online helped FearNet grow 94% month to month in Web traffic. Among many new features and fresh content online, the network is running the original Web series Buried Alive, in which one of 40 new episodes debuts every day for two months.

“To be successful in these platforms, you need to be a niche within a niche,” says FearNet chief Diane Robina, president of Comcast Emerging Networks. “I don't agree that the millennials have a short attention span.”

Certainly not when it comes to this niche, where the engagement of viewers across the board continues to be scary-good.