Destination America’s Exorcism is the Latest Live Stunt To Scare Up Viewers

Destination America, one of the less-shiny objects in Discovery’s portfolio of channels, will try to put itself on the TV map by airing a live exorcism. And while the Devil in such an exercise is in the details, it’s less Satan than the basic desire to tickle jaded nerve endings that is inspiring the network (and a lot of others) to try such stunts.

“Exorcism: Live!,” scheduled to air the night before Halloween, is set at the St. Louis home that inspired the movie “The Exorcist,” where a young boy was allegedly possessed 66 (get it?) years ago. According to producer Jodi Tovay, the main event won’t involve trying to save a possessed person, but rather will encompass an attempt to cleanse spirits from the house itself — which supposedly remains “hot” — in a ritual she describes as “a hybrid of an exorcism and a blessing.”

There’s no mystery why live events are all the rage these days, from sitcoms to variety shows, musicals to specials and stunts, including this one, as well as National Geographic’s “Brain Surgery Live” and A&E’s “Fear: Buried Alive,” all scheduled for this month alone. Not only does removing the tape delay offer a hoped-for hedge against time-shifted viewing and ad-skipping, but presumably, if done right, broadcasting live can bring some of the unpredictability of a sporting event to more conventional genres.

“Presumably, if done right, broadcasting live can bring some of the unpredictability of a sporting event to more conventional genres.”
Twitter: @blowryontv

Yet while the live element more often than not merely creates the illusion of a death-defying leap without a safety net, the pressure to raise the stakes inevitably keeps opening new (and in the case of “Exorcism,” dark and foreboding) doors. Notably, while Discovery garnered spectacular ratings when Nik Wallenda made his first live high-wire walk in 2013, the audience dropped substantially the second time around, suggesting that a mere 16 months later, a lot of viewers felt as if they’d been there, seen that. Ditto for NBC’s “Peter Pan,” which headed earthward after the network’s maiden musical event “The Sound of Music” soared.

Discovery group president Henry Schleiff, who counts Destination America among the networks he oversees, along with the higher-profile Investigation Discovery, has a bit of P.T. Barnum in him, but he’s much too polite to ever suggest that those people tuning in expecting to see glasses fly around the room might be suckers.

As for the likelihood that “Exorcism Live!” will deliver anything dramatic enough to require steam-cleaning the carpet, he says, “I don’t think we will have Geraldo Rivera and the empty vaults,” referring to the much lampooned but highly rated 1986 special devoted to opening Al Capone’s “secret” vault, which spurred a wave of copycats before the trend cooled. “The people we’re working with really believe in this,” Schleiff adds, noting that much of the public does as well.

Still, it’s pretty clear the ultimate goal — beyond motivating people to actually locate Destination America on their channel guides — is to capitalize on the live component in order to generate interest and turn some heads, albeit not all the way around. The larger question, not just for Discovery but for the entire industry, is when (as opposed to if) heading down this proverbial slippery slope results in somebody tumbling over a cliff, and how soon it yields diminishing returns.

For Destination America, which is seeking to carve out a niche as a home for programming related to the paranormal, a live exorcism surely represents a cheeky way to get in on the action. But as these sorts of stunts proliferate, one needn’t be a cynic to wonder whether TV’s latest infatuation with being “live” is going to exact a price by once too often crying wolf — or maybe, in this case, werewolf.

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