Strange Magic

Cable programmers are hoping to find ratings magic with new shows featuring magicians and illusionists.

While magic-themed scripted and reality shows are not new — History drew more than 3 million viewers in September for miniseries Houdini, about the iconic Harry Houdini — shows such as TruTV’s The Carbonaro Effect, Syfy’s Wizard Wars and Pop’s upcoming series Street Magic are blending conjuring with comedy and competition, network executives said.

“Magic is deeply rooted in our culture — from the days of Houdini, to our generation’s greats like David Copperfield,” Paul Adler, senior vice president of original programming and development for Pop, the rebranded TVGN, said. Street Magic, set to debut in 2015, will focus on the next generation of street magicians. “We love the authentic reactions that street magicians can deliver, because there is nothing like a street full of random, everyday people being moved to the point of screams while watching a street magician perform.”

Magic-themed programming can create strong ratings performances. Syfy’s Wizard Wars, in which young magicians compete to impress judges including the prolific Penn & Teller, averaged more than 1 million viewers during its freshman run this summer, Syfy officials said. The series is also the network’s most watched new unscripted series among males.

“Magic and illusion inspire people to think of what’s beyond the realm of possibility, and this is one of the reasons Wizard Wars resonates so well with our viewers,” Syfy senior vice president of alternative series development and production Heather Olander said. “What sets Wizard Wars apart is that we bring the viewer into the process with a glimpse behind the scenes at the prep involved to create these illusions.”

Indeed, the opportunity to witness the wizardry behind magic tricks can be just as fixating for viewers as seeing the illusions themselves. TruTV’s The Carbonaro Effect takes advantage of viewer fascination with the tricks as magician Michael Carbonaro gives viewers a sneak peek at the magical pranks he pulls on unsuspecting people. The series has been a hit for the recently rebranded truTV: The Oct. 30 premiere of the second half of the show’s freshman season drew more than 1.4 million viewers (on a live-plus-3-day basis), truTV said.

“The popularity of the show reflects the experience the viewer is having with it,” Chris Linn, TruTV president and head of programming, said. “It’s not about how big the magic trick was, but rather the authentic reaction after the trick from the [audience]. It’s a hybrid — it’s taking the hidden camera and the magic piece as well as the unexpected fun from the mark. If this were just a show about making the Empire State Building disappear, it would have been way off brand for us.”

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.