TV NotesTV Embraces Its Dark SideBroadcast Networks Add Edgy Dramas to Their Lineup for Coming Season
By Christopher S. Stewart and Suzanne Vranica, Wall Street Journal
In a promotional trailer for ABC's coming drama "666 Park Avenue" set in a Manhattan apartment building, walls swallow people, bright red blood swirls down a sink drain and at one point a terrified looking woman who has just moved in asks her boyfriend: "Are we going to be ok here?"
That's a question TV executives may be asking themselves after broadcast networks unveiled a total of about a half dozen similarly dark-tinged dramas last week at the annual TV "upfront" sales presentations for advertisers. Such shows have thrived on cable channels like AMC and FX lately (think "The Walking Dead"). But there is no guarantee the mass audiences that tune into broadcast networksor their advertiserswill be as enthusiastic.
"There is a huge risk in drama," admits Jennifer Salke, president of NBC Entertainment. Three of its 12 new scripted series scheduled for next season possess a kind of eeriness, including "Do No Harm," about a good-looking doctor with a violent alter ego and "Hannibal," about a serial killer.
Having lagged behind the other three networksWalt Disney Co.'s ABC, News Corp Fox and CBS Corp.'s CBSin recent years, Ms. Salke said NBC was willing to take more chances. "How do you make an original cop or hospital show?" she said. "That's why you find yourself leaning into big ideas that are often complex and dark."
But Comcast Corp.'s NBC isn't alone. With the exception of ratings leader CBS, all three major broadcast networks showed up with one or more new dramas bearing a similar sensibilitya roiling human terror that is sometimes uncomfortable, and at other times thrilling.
Fox, for instance, has a serial killer who inspires other serial killers in "The Following," starring Kevin Bacon, and "Mob Doctor," which centers on a woman with a talent for extracting screwdrivers from gangsters' skulls. Even the CW is embracing the genre with "Cult," where fans of a TV show recreate crime scenesto occasionally disturbing ends.
Why all this darkness now? Partly, executives say, it is a mood, with the political climate tense, the economy still shrouded in uncertainty and a lot of people still out of work.
"We think people want to escape," said Peter Roth, president of Warner Bros. Television, a Time Warner Inc. unit that is making several of the more ominous shows, including "666 Park Avenue." "Some people believe that escape is a singular form that means beaches, warm weather and bikinis," he said. "We don't subscribe to that theory."
Others say broadcast is taking a cue from cable channels, which, in a splintering wilderness of programming, are drawing increasing attention with their original shows, many of which deal with edgier subject matter.
News Corp.'s FX cable channel, for instance, has drawn viewers with its outlaw motorcycle club series "Sons of Anarchy," while AMC Networks Inc.'s AMC has thrived with its Zombie epic "The Walking Dead," which captured an average of 6.9 million viewers in its latest season, a sizable number for a cable channel. (News Corp. also owns The Wall Street Journal.)
"When you look at the number of hits on cable, what people are being attracted to in cable showsyou look at storytelling," said Terence Carter, senior vice president of drama at Fox. " 'Walking Dead' emboldened us to be able to try fare that is a little scarier, a little bit more thrilling."
But broadcasters have to be cautious. While Madison Avenue generally embraces the shift into the shadows, "some advertisers will likely wait for several episodes before buying into some of these darker programs," to make sure the content isn't too violent or controversial, said Steve Kalb, director of video investments at Mullen, an ad firm owned by Interpublic Group of Cos.
Viewer reaction is the big question. Because of the mass audience nature of broadcast TV, network viewers have a "certain expectation" that they'll get programming "that might not be as explicit or as dark as you might find on many cable networks," said Dennis Wharton, a spokesman for the National Association of Broadcasters.
Fans of these shows are already questioning whether broadcasters will be able to go far enough in their new lineups. "Some consumers have expressed fear that the shows won't be able to deliver the promised amounts of darkness because the shows are on broadcast networks instead of cable," said Sean Reckwerdt, lead analyst at Networked Insights, which monitors blogs and social media sites such as Twitter to give advertisers an early read on the buzz around new programs.
Mr. Carter, of Fox, acknowledged that while cable can be "a little more niche," broadcasters "want to be able to provide something for everyone." But he argued that shows like "The Following" had elements of broader interest. "You got some thrills, you got sexy soap going on, you've got great character work going on, and there's an investigative element to it."
Indeed, Warner Bros.' Mr. Roth said the programs, despite their subjects, have an underlying optimism. "The great thing about these shows is that behind what is seemingly a dark and frightening side is a tremendous amount of aspiration and hope," he added. "It's comforting to know, for instance, in 'The Following,' that there is an FBI agent out there who always gets his man."http://online.wsj.com/article/SB1000...607801106.html