Before AMC’s The Walking Dead lurched into America’s living rooms last Halloween, horror rarely made much of an impact on the tube. Aside from occasional flashes of brilliance (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Kolchak: The Night Stalker), the genre has largely been treated as a goof, more Munsters than monstrous.
But with the success of The Walking Dead and now the launch of the FX series American Horror Story, TV may breakout into a full on scare pandemic, driven by strong ratings and critical raves.
In its first season, Dead became the No. 1 show in cable history among the all-important 18-49 demo, and advertisers who once may have avoided gloom and gore couldn’t ignore the Nielsen ratings.
“We’re putting them in touch with an incredibly passionate and engaged audience, which is something every marketer looks for in a television environment,” says Charlie Collier, president and general manager, AMC.
Naturally, the network is careful about placement—you won’t see any adjacencies between food ads and some of Dead’s more gut-churning moments. “This isn’t just a genre exercise. You get all the escapism of a post-apocalyptic world, but you also get the character drama that we’ve been delivering since we launched Mad Men,” Collier says.
Two weeks into its run on FX, American Horror Story is also scaring up a desirable audience. A mashup of old-fashioned don’t-go-in-the-basement suspense and psychosexual disquiet, Horror Story topped all comers in its Oct. 5 premiere before going on to match TBS’ MLB playoff broadcast in the demo.
If nothing else, the horror boom may be a simple reflection of the zeitgeist. “Pick your favorite bogeyman, be it political or ecological,” says FX president John Landgraf. “The perceived threats are everywhere.” The case for horror TV may also come down to sheer economics. Clients seeking the highly coveted audiences tuning into AMC and FX would fork over three times the CPM for a spot on a similarly targeted broadcast show.