All joking aside, “scary” isn’t a word that you’d normally use to describe network television, no matter how much you may dislike the prospect of a second season of Whitney (Wait, I said all joking aside, didn’t I…?). There’s something about the lack of spooky and oozy programming on broadcast television in the U.S. that seems at once oddly comforting and also entirely surprising. After all, horror is arguably the most buzzed-about genre on television right now between the successes of both AMC’s The Walking Dead and FX’s American Horror Story: Asylum—and yet the closest thing NBC, ABC, CBS, Fox or the CW has to either show is Supernatural. Doesn’t that just seem wrong?
This wasn’t always the case, of course; broadcast networks used to gleefully try to freak out their audiences with anthology series in the 1960s and ’70s like The Twilight Zone, The Outer Limits and Night Gallery (Kids have had a slightly more gentle version of this more recently, with the likes of Goosebumps, which ran on Fox in the 1990s), and both Twilight Zone and Outer Limits were resurrected in the ’80s, ’90s and early 2000s. These days, however, there’s a distinct lack of non-cable shows that want to make you just that little bit uneasy before you switch off the television late at night; despite the seeming appetite out there right now, as Jeffrey Schlesinger, the president of Warner Bros International Television Distribution put it recently, “The one thing that’s not on [broadcast] television is horror.”
Or, at least, not straight horror. Because, let’s face it: We have a lot of horror-ish shows these days. Alongside the CW’s Supernatural, NBC’s Grimm offers up beasties, ghouls and things that go bump in the night on a regular basis, but both shows slot the horror elements into a procedural format with deep mythologies and soap operatic character relationships to soften out the edges. Similarly, ABC’s 666 Park Avenue may be set inside a demonic building with murderous elevators and Lost‘s Terry O’Quinn’s creepy, creepy smile, but when it comes down to it, it’s essentially Desperate Housewives with a little bit of added magic. Consider it the legacy of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, in a strange way: That show proved that network audiences may be suckers for well-known horror tropes, but they like them more when they come tempered with more familiar ideas lifted from other genres (soap operas, comedies, teen dramas), making everything just a little bit more comfortable and less… well, less frightening.
To be cynical, there are two very good reasons that might explain why broadcast networks stay away from “pure” horror. Firstly, there’s the question of ratings; unlike comedies, reality shows and, apparently, crime procedurals, it’s very possible that horror isn’t popular enough of a genre to support a series on a broadcast network. When ABC offered up The River earlier this year — a series co-created by Paranormal Activity creator Oren Peli that certainly hewed close to a “pure” horror set-up — it only lasted eight episodes, each one shedding more and more viewers, before the network pulled the plug. (Even more cynically, the audience that did stick around may not have been in the most receptive mood for the advertisements surrounding the story, potentially making it even more ripe for cancellation if advertisers complained about reduced reaction to their paid spots. Are scared consumers better consumers, I wonder? Someone should do a study.)
There’s the question of whether you can actually really do horror properly on broadcast television. In a recent episode of the Nerdist Writers Panel, comedy writer Victor Fresco compared the worlds of cable and broadcast television by saying, “I think the people who run networks are all big fans of cable. It’s a really different beast, because you cannot do on network what you can do on cable. So, you end up with a watered down version of something.” He continued, “They want to chase cable shows, and then they have to really dial down, because of standards, they have to really dial down what they can do.”
By “standards,” he’s referring to Standards and Practices, the department in television networks who monitor shows to ensure that they meet moral, ethical and legal standards before transmission. They are famously strict at times: The notes given for Saturday morning cartoon X-Men became Internet legend after they were leaked since they preventing characters from saying the word “Lord” in any context and offered guidance like “Please do not have the townspeople ‘splatter’ when Sinister blasts them. They may melt, or some such.” So it’s hard to imagine something as extreme as American Horror Story making it through to air intact on a broadcast network. Considering how restrictive the guidelines can be, horror, as we recognize the genre today, may not be something that falls inside Standards and Practices guidelines too easily.
Of course, the very idea of “what we recognize as horror today” is important, as well. Classic horror shows of days gone by like Night Gallery were examples of psychological horror, the kinds of things that would make you feel uneasy and disturbed, but avoid the jolts of shock, realization and upset that we’re more used to with today’s horror movies. These days, the intent of horror fiction on screen seems to be more about provoking a startled “Oh!” — or, perhaps, a grossed out “Ew!” — than anything more cerebral or long-lasting (And, considering that it’s apparently a good way to lose weight, maybe that’s not a bad thing). It’s something that some attribute to the influence of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, but whatever the reason, it’s a directional shift that broadcast television can’t follow… meaning that it has to go somewhere else.
That’s certainly what Thomas Vitale, the executive vice president of programming and original content at horror-centric cable channel Chiller, thinks has happened. “Historically there was a little bit of resistance; if a show was too scary the networks wondered if people would watch it and also whether you can hold the suspense on TV,” he said in an interview earlier this year. “Now producers and broadcasters have figured out how to make shows on commercial TV that are character based. It’s not about the gore or the killing, it’s not just about the slasher, it’s about the relationships and the characters.” Hence the move away from horror-as-horror and towards horror-as-one-element-of-a-greater whole.
So should we give up on the hope of seeing good horror that wants to actually scare its audience on broadcast television again anytime soon? Maybe; it may have to be just one more thing — like sitcoms, period drama, science fiction and political thrillers — that we’ll have to admit that cable just does better. Still, at least we’ll always have The Vampire Diaries. That’s got to count for something, right…?