A question that comes to me regularly is whether I know or have an opinion as to this question:
“Why has there been such a surge of television paranormal programs over the last decade?” It’s a two part answer…
First, the fact is that while the quantity of paranormal shows has surged, it’s mainly been on cable – which itself has surged since the mid 1980s. Comparing the number of “paranormal” hours on TV to the total number of cable TV hours, one might be hard pressed to say that the percentage has increased over the days before cable TV (yes, there were days before cable).
As cable networks and channels developed, there was more and more need for the ever-increasing hours to be filled by…something. Yes, it might have been hard to guess that the number of paranormal shows would be as high as today (and seemingly increasing). But in the pre-cable and early days of cable, who would ever have been able to predict an annual week of programming on one channel devoted to sharks?
The second part of the answer is that the paranormal has been with us on television since the early days. Want to see exceptionally good dramatizations of the paranormal? Get yourself some episodes of One Step Beyond. Anyone old enough to remember the exceptional show In Search Of… from the 1970s? Or the first TV show to have a parapsychologist as main character (The Sixth Sense, which later re-ran in edited form on Night Gallery)? Or the real deal investigator, Kolchak: The Night Stalker (the one with Darren McGavin). There was even a short-lived game show in the early days of TV called ESP, and numerous sitcoms with ghostly characters (such as Topper, The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, My Mother the Car, to name but a few).
In the 1990s, a show ran for several years covering the unexplained that included a focus on several paranormal investigators (myself included) who investigated with the lights on (No nightshot! How shocking!). That show, Sightings, did a great job (though edited down) of portraying our interactions with people who had paranormal problems – I say “our,” because I did several episodes of the show and helped launch their initial Sightings: Ghosts special, as did my colleague Kerry Gaynor.
And of course, we can’t ignore a key show that ran before, during and after Sightings that featured unexplained/paranormal topics from time to time – Unsolved Mysteries.
Perhaps other than Scooby Doo, there were no team-centered supposed “reality” or “documentary” shows such as today, but that was not for want of trying. I’ve been involved in a number of proposals and pitches for team-centered ghost investigation shows since Ghostbusters (yes, since the mid 80s), and even a couple of pilots before the current crop of shows.
But for whatever reason, the timing was not right, the networks wanted a cheaper show, we refused to fake things, our psychic wasn’t young and pretty enough (or blonde enough, in one case), we didn’t want to do demons (even though they insisted we also be “scientific”), and so on and so on.
In point of fact, a TV pilot I was involved in both on and off camera was shopped around in the early to mid 1990s featuring a team of investigators (folks I pulled together) called Haunted America (Abbitt-Prest Productions, 1993/1994), and there were several good nibbles, including for syndication. Unfortunately, they wanted a cheaper show, etc., etc. [Note: watch this space for an announcement in a couple of months about the release of Haunted America for home viewing]
To this day, I still hear from producers, have been involved in numerous proposals and pitches, and a couple of pilots, and expect this will continue.
I do welcome contact from producers, since I do still hold out hope (however unlikely), that some network will actually be interested in quality, and in presenting the ghost/haunting/poltergeist experiences (the ghost story we’re actually investigating) in a way that captures the true drama of the situation.
Sadly, I’ve been approached time and again to help develop something “different” or “closer to what parapsychologists actually do and find” or “more scientific,” even at the request of the network, only to have the network turn down the idea in favor of some other production company’s copy-cat of one of the current crop of ghost hunting shows.
I’ve been doing TV on this subject since 1983, and radio before that. I’ve done hundreds of TV shows and news interviews, thousands of radio (broadcast and internet) and podcasts and appeared in thousands of print interviews and articles. I’ve consulted on numerous TV projects (including some episodes of TV dramas and comedies) and even some movies. I say all this because it provides some basis for those who may not know me to ask “who the hell is this guy and why is he qualified to comment on TV and other media?”
But I also know TV and radio from another angle: growing up in the industry. My father (producer) and one of his brothers (director) worked in TV, another uncle was a radio newscaster and taught radio broadcasting, and both my brothers are in the industry (one in TV, the other in film). I grew up behind the scenes of television broadcasting and intended to work with the medium to try to change people’s opinions and perspectives (and perceptions) of psychic phenomena as I entered the field of Parapsychology – at least a little.
Will the increase in paranormal shows continue?
Certainly, as long as there’s an audience, and more and hours to fill on cable.
Will the quality of the portrayals of the experiences, phenomena, or investigations and research ever get better?
Not until the viewing public expresses more vocal interest in that, and supports whatever show first tries to venture into the actual arena of research and investigation of paranormal/psychic phenomena.
Though I can still hope, can’t I?