The Apocalypse Will Be Televised

The Mayan prophecy be damned, this fall the networks load up on doom

In 1983, the same year President Ronald Reagan gave his hawkish “evil empire” speech, ABC aired The Day After, a made-for-TV movie about a full-scale nuclear war between the Soviet Union and the U.S.

Those marketers brave enough to wade into politically charged waters were rewarded with the largest audience in history for an original TV movie. Some 100 million people—or, a Super Bowl-sized audience—watched Armageddon unfold in Lawrence, Kan.

Scaring the bejeezus out of TV viewers was good business then, and it remains so. In these post-Hunger Games, pre-Mayan-prophecy times, apocalyptic series such as TNT’s Falling Skies, Nat Geo’s Doomsday Preppers and AMC’s The Walking Dead (returning Oct. 14), are drawing millions of devoted fans.

Not to be outdone, on Sept. 17 NBC will debut the catastrophe-themed Revolution from J.J. Abrams, in which a global blackout causes mass panic and destruction, while ABC has plans for Zero Hour and The Last Resort, two dramas with end-times overtones.

In addition, TNT has ordered the disaster drama The Last Ship, from executive producer Michael Bay, while the young-adult-targeted CW network has at least two post-apocalyptic shows in development. Spike, meanwhile, will premiere Last Family on Earth, a six-part reality competition in which teams vie for spots in a tricked-out bunker, its finale timed for the Mayan calendar’s so-called “end date” of Dec. 21.

TV producers are tapping into the public’s perpetual fascination with catastrophic story lines, which has only intensified lately. “There’s a feeling in the zeitgeist that we’re headed toward a cliff,” said Eric Kripke, creator and executive producer of Revolution. “A lot of people believe we’re long overdue to get knocked down a peg or two, and something as simple as the lights going out could cause the fall of society.”

There are also plenty of reasons for advertisers to glom onto doomsday TV, said Brad Adgate, svp of research at Horizon Media. Fans of horror, fantasy and sci-fi programming tend to be young, male and engaged. Not content to just watch, they also light up social media with their commentary and feedback, industry insiders point out, turning genre shows into trending topics on Twitter and other digital platforms.

“What you may lose in mass for these kinds of shows, you gain in loyalty,” said Sam Armando, svp, director of research at Starcom MediaVest Group’s SMGx. “And since viewers are so passionate, it enhances the possibility that they’re noticing and talking about the advertisers. That can be a big advantage.”