Network takes stab at horror anthology

With cable continuing to draw viewers and new technologies eclipsing traditional distribution systems, there are few things more terrifying today than being a broadcast network executive. So it’s ironic that one of this summer’s riskiest programming moves is all about fear … both on and off the screen.

NBC has given a straight-to-series order to “Fear Itself,” a 13-episode horror anthology from exec producers Keith Addis and Andrew Deane, and creator Mick Garris, the forces behind Showtime’s “Masters of Horror.” Like its cable predecessor, each hourlong episode of “Fear,” which preems on June 5, is a stand-alone — written and directed by its own auteur.

Also like “Masters,” “Fear” pairs top horror directors such as John Landis , John Dahl and Darren Bousman with A-list writers like Victor Salva and Steve Niles.

Horror and suspense anthologies aren’t new (“The Twilight Zone,” “Alfred Hitchcock Presents,” “The Outer Limits”), but most recent stabs have sent shivers down spines of execs and auds alike. UPN’s 2002 remake of “Twilight Zone” was a dismal failure, and last summer’s ABC anthology, “Masters of Science Fiction,” garnered mixed reviews and abysmal ratings.

“It’s a marketing challenge,” Addis says. “People at the networks are anxious about how they get audiences to buy into shows where there isn’t a running character and they’re not dealing with the same world from week to week.”

Horror shows are also, by their very nature, designed to make audiences uncomfortable, a prickly notion for broadcasters desperate to appeal to as many viewers as possible.

“We go from psychological horror to ghost stories to monster movies,” Deane says. “We’ve worked on this show to find stories that grab people, hold their interest and keep them in suspense or scare them.”

Anthologies even come with their own production challenges. Unlike regular series, which use the same sets and actors from week to week, anthologies start fresh each episode, meaning new locations, directors and casts.

All these elements make horror anthologies dangerous propositions for broadcast networks. Which is why NBC is hedging its bets.

On the upside, “Fear” came to the network independently financed by Lionsgate and its Canadian partners, reducing NBC’s license fee and allowing it to pick up the show straight to series.

Secondly, it debuts in the summer, when audiences dip and ratings expectations are lower.

“It goes back to ‘Jaws,’ the first summer blockbuster,” says Terence Carter, the Peacock’s VP of drama programming. “People have an affinity for the genre.”

Yet none of this diminishes NBC’s risk. Even as the network gears up its marketing machine, it’s aware of the hazardous waters into which it wades.

“Coming from the Ben Silverman school, we’re risk-takers,” says Teri Weinberg, exec VP of entertainment. “I wish we all had the answers. We don’t. It’s a noble experiment, but we believe in what we’re doing. We hope audiences agree.”

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