Paranormal Programming: It Lives

Popular in the aughts, reality-show ghost stories are making a comeback
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As Halloween season fast approaches, the paranormal TV genre — nearly left for dead in recent years, after dominating reality programming more than a decade ago — is rising from the industry graveyard.

Taking a page from the popular true-crime genre, supernatural reality shows have been repositioned from a genre that sought to frighten viewers with sightings of evil apparitions, to one focused on the stories behind the ghosts as well as those who claim to see them. The new focus draws both men and women viewers who like good storytelling alongside their thrills, network executives said.

Travel Channel's Ghost Brothers: Haunted Houseguests

Juwan Mass (r.) and two buddies help homeowners tackle the spirit realm in Travel Channel's 'Ghost Brothers Haunted Houseguests.'

“When networks were doing paranormal shows back in 2010, it was done a different way — it was more of going into a haunted house with a flashlight,” Travel Channel general manager Matt Butler said. “Today, we are trying to steer the creative to be story-driven because people want to hear great stories.”

“Every category goes through phases and gets to a point where there is oversaturation, but there continues to be interest, and not surprisingly it finds its way back,” media consultant Bill Carroll said. “The audience misses what they’ve become accustomed to, in terms of being able to watch in essence things that go bump in the night.”

Paranormal TV programming was one of the more successful subcategories of the reality series genre during the mid to late 2000s. Led by shows such as Syfy’s Ghost Hunters (where it ran from 2004 to 2016) and Destination Truth, Travel Channel’s Ghost Adventures, Discovery Channel’s A Haunting and Bio’s Psychic Investigators, the genre exploded with scary tales of house hauntings and psychic mediums conjuring up ghosts and other non-living creatures. By 2010, there were more than 25 paranormal- themed shows on various cable networks.

Grant Wilson, co-creator of Ghost Hunters — considered the granddaddy of the genre, and revived by A&E last month — said in the late 2000s that the paranormal- themed shows showcased on-screen were relatively new and different from traditional reality fare.

Death by Unoriginality

By the mid 2010s, though, according to industry observers, the genre fizzled due to oversaturation and a lack of ingenuity. By 2017, cable networks were running less than half as many paranormal shows as were offered seven years prior, even as the genre thrived with theatrical film franchises such as The Conjuring and Paranormal Activity.

“I think there was this eruption of shows and ideas, and [other producers] saw that Ghost Hunters was a hit — the formula worked and was repeatable,” Wilson said. “There were a bunch of people who tried their hand at it and there were different techniques, but then it became too saturated and the shows weren’t succeeding.”

RELATED: 'Ghost Hunters' Grant Wilson Hoping to Scare Up New Generation of Viewers 

A&E was one of the networks that walked away from the genre in the mid 2010s after being one of its biggest supporters a decade earlier, with such shows as Celebrity Ghost Stories, Psychic Kids and Paranormal State. A&E senior vice president of development and programming Amy Savitsky said the network in 2019 has re-embraced the genre by launching a Wednesday- night slate of original, paranormal-themed shows.

“A lot of genres go through phases, and this was a genre back in the day where we had some really great successes — we had a whole slate of programming that we found our viewers were attracted to,” she said. “Today, there seems to be a burgeoning sense that people are willing to again explore the possibility of the supernatural and what might exist as more people are declaring themselves spiritual but not religious and thinking about what’s possible. We think it’s the right time to bring it back.”

While family-friendly advertisers may not be able to stomach the thrills and chills generated from paranormal programming, Billie Gold, vice president, director of TV/video activation research at media agency Dentsu Aegis, said there are plenty of companies that would advertise in genre-themed shows as the public becomes more fascinated with the facts behind the reported hauntings.

“They aren’t huge ratings-grabbers, but do well and have a slightly lower median age than typical drama fare,” she said. “There are enough advertisers that will opt in search of younger audiences on networks that have a higher median age. With technology more advanced and more experts looking into these topics, viewers are looking for plausible explanations for things they cannot explain. Viewers are seeking ‘truth’ and want to know facts.”

Indeed, a 2018 Chapman University survey of American fears reported 57.7% of people believe that places can be haunted by spirits, up from 46.6% in 2016.

Travel Channel’s Butler said the acceptance of true-life paranormal experiences has grown among viewers, leading to a renewed interest in the genre.

“There are a lot of people who believe in the paranormal, and when people have experiences it’s hard for them to talk about it for fear that people will think they are crazy,” he said. “We see our programming as allowing people to get together as a group and to see other people share their stories. I think our viewers respect and respond to that.”

Travel Channel now devotes about 30% of its programming lineup to paranormal-themed shows, including such new series as Ghost Brothers: Haunted Houseguests and Portals to Hell, as well as classic titles like Ghost Adventures, now in its 21st season, and The Dead Files, currently in its 11th season. The network has also imported new shows from other Discovery-owned networks like TLC’s Kindred Spirits.

In October, the network will premiere an episode from one of its paranormal shows every night of the month, according to Butler.

Headlining its “Ghostober” lineup is Ghost Nation, debuting Oct. 11 and starring former Ghost Hunters host Jason Hawes, and the Oct. 4 premiere of Haunted Salem: Live, a four-hour live ghost investigation in Salem, Massachusetts, which sends a team of the network’s biggest paranormal stars to investigate ghostly activity at three historic locations tied to the infamous Salem witch trials, said the network.

Butler likens the resurgence of paranormal content to that of the true-crime genre, in which networks like ID, HBO, Netflix and Oxygen shifted the category’s focus from the gory, salacious aspects of cold-blooded crimes to more of a storytelling platform that digs deeper into the incidents.

“One of the big things about the true-crime dramas is that they lean on story, and I think in today’s world, with so many [viewing] options, if you can catch an audience with a good story they will come back for more,” he said.

Added A&E’s Savitsky: “A lot of people are addicted to crime shows which are similarly trying to solve a mystery. All of our shows are rooted in a call for help … the storyline is always somebody is afraid or somebody can’t figure out a mystery that’s happening at home or in a building that they manage, so they are asking for help to solve a mystery that’s scaring them.”

Last month, A&E reintroduced paranormal programming to its audience by launching a primetime lineup of such shows, led by the Ghost Hunters reboot. The Aug. 21 A&E debut of the series, which ran on Syfy from 2004 to 2016, drew 574,000 adults 25-54 in Nielsen live-plus-3 viewing, with the second episode delivering 555,000 viewers in the demo, the network said.

“We always felt that Ghost Hunters is the OG [original gangster] of paranormal shows,” Savitsky said. “It’s the show that launched a genre and interest in paranormal investigation. When thinking about how to relaunch paranormal, it was the obvious choice to launch with Ghost Hunters.”

Wilson of Ghost Hunters said he resurrected the show to take advantage of viewers’ current heightened interest in the supernatural, adding that the new version comes at the subject from a different point of view than the original iteration.

Grant Wilson of Ghost Hunters

Grant Wilson of 'Ghost Hunters,' the genre pioneer that got a second life on A&E this summer.

“What we’ve done is focus less on, is it there? — that’s still part of the show — but more about, what does it all mean?” Wilson said. “A lot of people see an entity or hear a voice and then stop, but that’s where we are going to start. We’ll look at it and try to figure out what it is or who it is, what does it mean and how can we help.”

Other paranormal shows have taken similar steps to focus on the human side of the ghost story. Dalen Spratt, Juwan Mass and Marcus Harvey, the stars of Travel Channel’s Ghost Brothers, said their new show — Ghost Brothers: Haunted Houseguests, which launched in July — spends more time on the stories of those who believe they’re being haunted than on the hunt for actual ghosts.

The longtime friends whose initial Ghost Brothers series ran for two seasons (2016-17) on Destination America and TLC, said their new show actually helps individuals and families who believe their homes to be haunted by spending a weekend with them ghost-hunting, as well as researching the house and the victims’ town before providing recommendations on how to proceed. Those tips can range from introducing clients to a medium to further contact the spirit to recommending they vacate the premises altogether.

“This show is a little different from our last show, which was basically three black guys being thrown into some of the most haunted locations to see what happens,” Spratt said. “With our new series, we look at the full story and there is eventually a [resolution]. Families actually reach out to us and let us know that their houses are haunted and they are seeking some type of validation and help, and we try to provide that to them.”

No Fears of Ghost Fatigue

A&E’s Savitsky said that she’s not worried about the genre suffering the same fate as a decade ago and that it will thrive as viewers turns to paranormal programming for thrills and captivating stories. “I have no concerns because each show has a different way in — that’s one of the differences we’re seeing this time around,” she said. “We’re very diligent on how we execute our shows to make sure they are different. But for me, the genre never went away.”

Added Carroll: “I think, ultimately, the audiences will tell you whether this is the right time for the genre to be successful. Obviously, the people putting together these shows believe it’s the right time to bring back the genre, but in the end it’s the audience that will let us know.”

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