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Hocus Pocus: At Halloween, Networks Look for New Ways to Scare Up Viewers

by Andrew Greene  |  10.17.2016

After what seemed like a never-ending summer of TV premieres, the holiday season is suddenly upon us, with Halloween the first stop in the three-month gauntlet. That means a deluge of horror movie marathons, Halloween-themed episodes, specials and stunts from networks bobbing for apples/ratings.

As Ash from Starz’s Ash vs. Evil Dead would say: Groovy.

“October is a great month. Halloween takes over the stores. It takes over our everyday, it’s everywhere, it’s not for young, it’s not for old, it’s for everybody in between,” said Destination America’s VP of Marketing Strategy, Jennifer Pennybacker.

Along with live events such as sports, debates and musicals, Halloween provides networks with an increasingly rare opportunity: a chance to get people to watch TV while it’s actually airing.

Now it’s a matter of choosing what to watch, a difficult proposition when mainstays like AMC, Syfy and Freeform have been joined by networks as diverse as Destination America, Pop TV and the Food Network.

As more and more competitors fight for a smaller and smaller piece of the pie, it’s gotten cooler to be niche.

Freeform changed its name but not its niche from ABC Family with its 18th year of “13 Nights of Halloween,” which runs October 19 through Halloween, October 31. That will take the network into its 25 Days of Christmas, a very popular long-running feature for the network that kicks off Dec. 1.

“We’re the home of Hocus Pocus,” said Stacy Asturias, vice president, Freeform Creative. “Many networks go edgy and extreme, but we have a place for fun, nostalgic content. Our fans love it and so do we. If you want to party with people who love Hocus Pocus, then Freeform is where you’re going to spend Halloween.”

In addition to Sarah Jessica Parker, ‘13 Nights’ delivers the network television premiere of R.L. Stine’s Monsterville: Cabinet of Souls and the Freeform premiere of Spooky Buddies.

Freeform’s familiar formula of Burton and Midler will be buoyed by a series of interstitials hosted by Grammy nominated popstar Charli XCX (above) that will debut her new single “After the Afterparty” before its wide release on October 28.

“We love to partner with artists and help our fans discover new music as they’re enjoying our content,” said Asturias. “Charli XCX felt like an excellent fit for the brand and the stunt. It’s going to be the song to be spinning at your Halloween party.”

Given Freeform’s audience, their focus on digital platforms is hardly surprising. Throughout the month, Freeform’s partnering with Wishbone for daily polls concerning their programming, live-tweeting their primetime movies and creating loads of social content surrounding them.

Many of the movies will also be available on Freeform’s newly launched 13NOH website, and its app, including horror series Dead of Summer.

For those needing more than 13 nights of Halloween programming, old faithful’s like Syfy and AMC help fill a shrinking void.

Syfy’s annual “31 Days of Halloween” features five original films, on-air horror movie trivia, daily listicles and party tips on Blastr.com, and the series premiere of their original anthology series Channel Zero: Candle Cove on October 11.

On Halloween night at 7/6c, Syfy’s social team will take fans inside the New York City Greenwich Village Halloween Parade on Snapchat, Instagram and Twitter.

AMC’s “FearFest” returns for its 20th year, and is the heavyweight when it comes to horror movie franchises, with Friday the 13th being the tip of the 85 movie iceberg.

If that doesn’t sate your hunger for slashers, the AMC-backed app Shudder has (a knife in) your back, with hundreds more to choose from.

FearFest continues the annual tradition of The Walking Dead marathon, now up to 88 hours, culminating in its seventh season premiere on Sunday October 23 at 9/8c.

IFC has also joined the battlefield with its “Wake Up and Smell the Evil” stunt that unveils B-horror fare like Friend Without a Face every weekend morning, starting October 8-9, and lasting through Halloween weekend. This is no coincidence: it all pushes to the Halloween preview of new horror comedy Stan Against Evil at 10 PM.

Fox remains one of the few major networks in the Trick-or-Treating mood, kicking things off with the 600th episode of The Simpsons, “Treehouse of Horror XXVII,” airing October 16.

Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Scream Queens and Bob’s Burgers each have Halloween episodes, but Fox hopes its biggest draw is The Rocky Horror Picture Show: Let’s Do the Time Warp Again!, a live musical reimagining of the cult classic premiering Thursday, October 20, 8:00 p.m. ET.

A newer contestant in TV’s version of the Hunger Games is Destination America’s “Ghostober,” their all-new all month long stunt that reflects the brand’s growing paranormal programming slate.

“The paranormal has become our fanbase, and where we’re seeing enormous growth,” said Pennybacker. “It was natural for us to own and grab onto our Ghostober stunt. There is no home for paranormal programming. There are other networks that have shows and nights dedicated to this, but there is no niche network that does it for 24/7. That’s what Destination America is looking to promise,” said Pennybacker.

Rather than focusing on Halloween retreads, “Ghostober” seeks to have more original programming than the rest, like Destination America’s first podcast, Why Is This Place So Haunted?, which launched October 17 on iTunes.

“Other networks out there aren’t putting premieres on every single night. They’re showing movies, or filling in with repeats,” said Pennybacker. “We’re trying to fill 31 days of content and be honest with the all-new, all-month long promise. We’re opening all the cupboards. We’re knocking on other people’s doors, we’re getting acquisitions, we’re repackaging, we’re doing original programming. Our paranormal programming is happening all the time, but it culminates with Ghostober.”

That has translated to several specials, new episodes of their ongoing series and several stunts beyond their air.

The network has hosted ghost cams at two of the most haunted locations in America: Baltimore’s Edgar Allan Poe House (Oct. 4-6) and Philadelphia’s Penn Museum (Oct. 14-16). These events were leveraged across their social, the Destination America Go App, and their supernatural blog The Hauntist.

Last year, Destination America went viral with the world’s first ever live telecast of an exorcism. This year, the network seeks to top that with Paranormal Lockdown: The Black Monk House on Halloween night at 9-11 p.m. ET. Hosts Nick Groff and Katrina Weidman will spend a record-breaking 100 hours at the site of England’s most violent poltergeist haunting.

Paranormal Lockdown was announced at San Diego Comic-Con in July and promotion for it only intensified with a panel at New York Comic-Con on October 9, where Destination America hosted their first Facebook Live event.

Inspired by their success, TLC, Destination America’s self-styled “partners in paranormal,” is jumping headfirst into the paranormal genre with the premiere of Kindred Spirits on Friday, October 21 at 10/9c immediately following the premieres of one-hour special Ghosts of Shepherdstown at 8/7c and a new season of A Haunting at 9/8c.

Like Freeform, Destination America has found its niche.

“The paranormal community wants to feel validated, and wants to feel that they have a community to come to and have a conversation about it,” said Pennybacker.

Every year during the holidays, the conversation gets a little bit more crowded. To get heard, you need to specialize. Or focus on a different holiday. If you’re not a believer in The Great Pumpkin (or its 50th anniversary, airing on ABC October 19), that’s okay. You’re probably already counting down to Christmas.

[All images courtesy of Freeform and Destination America]

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