Want to scare a TV executive? Pitch a horror series. Until recently, nothing frightened networks more than the prospect of trying to spook viewers every week in prime time. But thanks to the success of AMC’s The Walking Dead, FX’s American Horror Story, HBO’s True Blood, and, most recently, NBC’s Grimm, networks have become a lot braver about venturing into the abandoned boarded-up house of TV horror. Nearly every major broadcaster will roll out a macabre project this season.
”I was pitching zombie shows years before The Walking Dead,” says writer-producer Bryan Fuller, who’s behind NBC’s midseason Dr. Lecter series Hannibal and the network’s Munsters reboot Mockingbird Lane. ”[Networks] were all ‘Horror does not work.’ It does work. It’s fantastic storytelling in its simplest form — it’s life and death.”
In addition to Fuller’s projects, ABC is launching the haunted-apartment-building drama 666 Park Avenue this fall, while midseason will see Fox’s serial-killer thriller The Following from Kevin Williamson, The CW’s meta-conspiracy thriller Cult, and NBC’s Dracula series starring Jonathan Rhys Meyers. The titles represent a bloodcurdling deluge following occasional efforts like CBS’ short-lived Harper’s Island and ABC’s shorter-lived The River. Even AMC’s zombie hit, which stunned the industry by delivering 9 million viewers for its season 2 finale, struggled to find a network for years. Walking Dead writer Robert Kirkman says he understood why TV executives were wary. ”There definitely was resistance to dive into the genre,” he says. ”They’re like, ‘I don’t know if we want dead people eating people on our network.’ That makes sense.”
TV wasn’t always so reluctant to air shows that go bump in the night. For decades, horror series like The Twilight Zone, Dark Shadows, and Kolchak: The Night Stalker and comedic takes like The Addams Family graced TV airwaves. But the rise of home video in the 1980s meant viewers could watch gory and shock-filled films at home without commercials. Broadcasters’ family-friendly and commercial-packed attempts at the genre seemed increasingly silly by comparison (remember FreakyLinks?). Explains Fox drama exec Terence Carter, who developed The Following, ”We knew there was an insatiable audience for horror, but [executives] were afraid that if you didn’t deliver on viewer expectations compared to what people could get in theaters, audiences would reject it.”
Another problem was creative: TV is a character-driven medium where a show must run for years to be lucrative. Horror is a character-killing medium that requires viewers to be convinced that everyone is in constant mortal peril. Writing horror for TV is like trying to teach snakes to raise mice. In the past few years, however, horror roadblocks have been pushed aside: The success of graphic cable projects has emboldened writers and networks to push the content envelope; DVRs let fans skip suspense-shattering commercials (whether networks like it or not); and the industry has discovered that you can kill a main character without murdering a show’s ratings — see The Walking Dead (R.I.P., Shane) or FX’s American Horror Story, which neatly solved the issue of maintaining character jeopardy by resetting each season with a new story.
Yet the big broadcasters remain a bit squeamish, partly out of necessity; everything they do has to be cleared by the networks’ censors. The secret to making horror for the major networks, Carter says, is to stay focused on ”thrills and scares” rather than gore. But to author Stephen King, whose novels such as It and The Stand have been adapted for the small screen, the Big Four are simply too polite and splatter-free. ”The networks want to do horror, but not gooshy horror,” he says. ”Their idea is the occasional rubber monster, á la The X-Files. It’s peculiar, too, because CBS has no problem with gruesome corpses on CSI.”
Even Fuller, who finally managed to get the people-eating-people show Hannibal made at NBC, agrees networks could get bolder. He recently fought executives over 11 frames of film showing a werewolf in his Mockingbird Lane pilot that the network deemed too frightening. ”There’s always going to be some caution,” Fuller says. ”Networks are in the unfortunate position of having to second-guess audiences. The only thing that will make them comfortable with the genre is success.” And if the upcoming horror-TV crop flops? Expect more karaoke contests and cop dramas. Now, that’s scary.