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‘Spirited’ Approach to Turn Net Into Prime Destination

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As the paranormal activity film franchise and countless ghost-chasing TV series have shown, there’s real ratings, and revenue, in ghost-related programming. Destination America seeks to take the Caspar-grasper sector a step further when it stages

Exorcism: Live! Oct. 30—a major swing for the newish network that could end in ratings bonanza—or brand-damaging bust. Exorcism: Live! is a noisy effort to remind viewers that Destination America, which launched out of the failed Discovery net Planet Green three years ago, may be worth visiting. Henry Schleiff, president of Destination America, Investigation Discovery and American Heroes Channel, promises, if nothing else, an “interesting” night of television. “You should be in business to do something a little different,” he says. “You don’t see [the phrase] ‘first ever live television’ very often. It’s unique in this universe of unlimited content platforms.”

Currently in 59 million U.S. households, Destination America launched in 2012 and bills itself as a forum to “celebrate the people, places and stories of the United States.” It’s a top 50 ad-supported cable network among men 25-54, says Ratings Intelligence, and is up 2% in that demo this quarter versus 2014.

Apparitions factor substantially into the Destination America programming mix; last week featured marathon airings of The Haunting, Hauntings and Horrors, Ghostly Encounters, Ghost in My House and Ghost Asylum.

In fact, the cast of Ghost Asylum, known as the Tennessee Wraith Chasers, along with “psychic medium” Chip Coffey, will be featured in Exorcism: Live! The special is timed to the 66th anniversary of a real-life exorcism that inspired the iconic film The Exorcist, and will visit the St. Louis house where it took place in 1949. The Wraith Chasers and Coffey aim to rid the home of “the spirits and demons that remain there,” according to press materials.

“They have had unusual experiences in this house,” says Schleiff. “And I’m being demure… uncharacteristically.”

Making His Mark

Indeed, while some network chiefs speak in banalities to avoid irking corporate overlords, Schleiff—a B&C Hall of Famer who previously executed turnarounds at the former Court TV and Hallmark Channel—speaks his mind and revels in putting on a good show, whether it’s on TV or in an interview setting. Asked if he believes in ghosts, Schleiff pauses for a moment, then responds, “I believe in research,” citing figures that indicate 60% of Americans believe in them.

Halloween is a popular time of year for stunt programming. Starting at 8 p.m. on October 31st, TLC airs Jack-o-Lantern Live, a two-hour block showcasing “the most intricate pumpkin carvings” around. FXX counts down to Halloween with a Simpsons “Treehouse of Horror” marathon—a six-night stunt featuring all 25 “Horror” episodes. Never one to let a holiday go by without a massive programming campaign, ABC Family kicked off “13 Nights of Halloween” Oct. 19, with a big batch of horror movies, including The Addams Family and Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride.

Mike Bloxham, senior VP, Frank N. Magid Associates, says the buildup to Exorcism: Live! has been sanguine. “For those gripped by the ghost-hunting, paranormal, psychic end of the unscripted TV spectrum, this will likely be like blood in the water during Shark Week,” he says. “I’d guess the network will see some pretty good ratings.” (Bloxham has not consulted for Destination America, but has done so with Discovery Channel.)

There could be protests from the religious right, adds Bloxham, but that would only serve to further promote the special, and the network.

Ghost in the Machine

Destination America is playing up its social media components, promoting the show as interactive—with users at home following the exorcism process through live cameras on their digital devices, and using Twitter to share their observations and compel the ghost chasers to visit a different room or floor. Schleiff describes it as a “lean in” experience.

Of course, a live exorcism could end up, like Al Capone’s vault, full of dusty, cobweb-strewn hype. After all, those ghosts can be fickle creatures. Schleiff acknowledges there will not likely be a visible moment of closure, such as ghosts packing their suitcases and bolting out into the spooky St. Louis night. He says it’s all part of the show. “You’re on a trip, you’re headed for a destination you’ve not heretofore visited or been exposed to,” he says.

Asked if Exorcism: Live! is the biggest swing Destination America has taken in its short life, Schleiff’s response comes back characteristically effusive. “Absolutely!” he says. “It’s the first of many more to come, I think.”

Michael Malone, senior content producer at B+C/Multichannel News, covers network programming, including entertainment, news and sports on broadcast, cable and streaming; and local broadcast television. He hosts the podcasts Busted Pilot, about what’s new in television, and Series Business, a chat with the creator of a new program, and writes the column “The Watchman.” He joined B+C in 2005. His journalism has also appeared in The New York Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Playboy and New York magazine.