Blood-thirsty zombies recently helped AMC’s drama series The Walking Dead devour cable’s all-time largest audience for a scripted series, but other supernatural creatures are also scaring up big ratings for cable networks.
Witches, werewolves, vampires, zombies and ghosts are all the rage on cable these nights as networks look to thrill audiences with stories about supernatural creatures. While shows like AMC’s The Walking Dead, FX’s American Horror Story: Coven and HBO’s True Blood feature their share of disturbing, gory horror scenes, executives said these creatures are connecting with a new generation of young viewers through intricate storylines and often romantic interludes that take some of the bite out of a genre that has traditionally delivered mostly chills, blood and gore.
“These aren’t mindless creatures — there is some humanity there, so you can tell a lot of stories,” said Thomas Vitale, Syfy executive vice president of programming and original movies. “You can tell character-driven stories, and TV today is a character-driven medium.”
TV’ S WITCHING HOUR
Witches in particular have captured the interest of viewers this fall. AMC’s Emmy-winning series American Horror Story: Coven, which chronicles the secret history of witches and witchcraft in America, conjured up a series record 5.54 million viewers during its Oct. 9 third season premiere, according to network officials.
Lifetime’s Witches of East End, which follows a family of sorceresses, drew 1.9 million viewers in its Oct. 6 premiere, an improvement on the network’s third-quarter primetime audience of 1.6 million viewers. Supernatural characters like witches are timeless and will always have appeal with viewers, Lifetime executive vice president and general manager Rob Sharenow said.
“Witches of East End really captures a certain romantic spirit that the Twilight saga had,” Sharenow said. “It’s sort of a spicy love triangle within the show, but also our show is very much focused on these core female relationships — two sets of sisters and a mother/daughter relationship. I think it’s a unique perspective to explore the world of witches that seems just right for us and really hasn’t been done before.”
Of course, zombies still rule the cable landscape. Executives said the success of The Walking Dead, which set a new cable series record for its Oct. 12 season-four premiere by generating a whopping 16.1 million viewers, has opened up the door for other horror-based series to thrive. The show’s strong storyline often covers over the graphic and bloody zombies-eating-humans scenes that keep both horror fans and drama aficionados drawn to the show.
“The success of The Walking Dead has opened up everyone’s eyes to how well scary programming can work on television,” Vitale said. Syfy recently picked up the Canadian-produced werewolf drama Bitten as a companion for Being Human, a supernatural drama featuring a werewolf, ghost and vampire who reside under the same roof.
FearNet president Peter Block said networks are cleverly developing their own witches’ brew within the horror genre, taking viewers’s familiarity with werewolves, vampires and witches, and mixing it with a dash of mythology and a few drops of sex appeal to cook up a surprising combo of young male and female viewers.
“The genre appeals across demos because it’s emotional and it’s exciting,” Block said, adding that Fear- Net’s audience for its mix of horror-themed movies, original programming and specials is 55% female. “When the show is good, the viewership usually trends that way.”
MTV’s Teen Wolf, which earlier this month was picked up for a fourth season, has scored big with the network’s millennial audience.
The series, which follows the life of an awkward teen who inherits the werewolf curse, averaged a series high 2.8 million viewers — the majority of which were female — during the first half of season three this past summer.
“The biggest draw is that there’s a fantasy element to them — there’s a bit of a wish fulfillment of, ‘What if I had these powers and all that comes along with it?’ ” Mina Lefevre, senior vice president and head of scripted programming for MTV, said. “You also can’t rule out the sexiness of the characters, as well as the layers of mythology within the show, which I think audiences are hungry for.”
Vitale also said the increased use of on-demand and digital video recorders has helped build an attachment to both the protagonists and the villains that keeps viewers coming back for more.
“Good scares aren’t just about blood and guts and gore; the scares and suspense work better when you’re fully invested in the characters and in following a character’s journey, which can be best done through a multi-episode serial arc,” he said. “Thanks to the advent of VOD and DVRs, more and more television is serialized, so people can keep up with the long story and character arcs.”
Despite the glut of supernatural characters on cable, MTV’s Lefevre said there are still some thrills and chills left in the genre.
“The audience proves to us again and again that the good ones survive,” she said. “At the end of the day, you’ll have a handful that will percolate to the top.”
Added Block: “The genre is never over … It’ll keep coming around. The minute someone says the genre’s over, it’s the moment for someone to come out with that gangbuster show or network to emerge and fill the void again.”
Buoyed by big ratings, horror fare is proliferating across cable networks like zombies on The Walking Dead.