TV Networks' Blood-Splattered Race to Compete With 'The Walking Dead'

Fox's gory serial-killer drama The Following debuted to respectable ratings—and may provide a new model for traditional TV networks if people keep watching.

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For television fans, 2013 is shaping up as an exciting year. With Netflix, Amazon, Hulu and other online video providers stepping up not only their acquired content but their original content—Arrested Development anyone?—fans can choose quality programming from more sources than ever.

But for the executives of the Big Four broadcast networks—ABC, NBC, CBS and Fox—2013 looks to be fraught with angst. With their ratings slipping, hard-to-monetize DVR viewing habits becoming ingrained, and more options for the average viewer, the networks are looking at their current production slate and starting to wonder if they should do things differently.

After this introspection, however, the broadcast networks find themselves in a no-win position. Critics and viewers seem to be tiring of the doctors-cops-and-lawyers procedurals that networks have been airing since the dawn of time. But whenever a broadcast net tries to go out of its comfort zone and develop a show that can compete with The Walking Dead or Game of Thrones, it runs the risk of getting slammed as insensitive or, worse yet, having the shows rejected by viewers because of either inertia or fear of an itchy network trigger finger when it comes to cancellations.

The long-awaited arrival of Fox's new serial murder drama The Following, which premiered on Monday night, is going to be a big litmus test for the networks to see if they can follow the development models of cable channels, at least for a few signature shows. The Following, which stars Kevin Bacon and is written by Scream auteur Kevin Williamson, is about an ex-FBI agent (Bacon) who gets pulled back into the case of a serial killer (James Purefoy) he captured a decade ago, after the killer escapes prison and strives to slay again. Only now he's not taking lives alone; he's recruited hundreds of minions who seek to do his murderous bidding. After being recaptured, Bacon and the FBI scramble to try to find those followers before those followers find victims.

The Following has potential to have a story as rich as any cable show, as we not only delve further into the stories and psyches of ex-agent Ryan Hardy and serial killer Joe Carroll, but we also have the never-ending supply of various Carroll acolytes and their stories to examine. However, the show is also gorier than many of its network predecessors—in the pilot, Carroll kills the one victim who got away and carves out her eyes as a calling card—which is where Fox is running into flak, mainly from television critics who think the show is too violent for broadcast TV, especially at its Monday at 9 p.m. ET timeslot.

During the just-concluded Television Critics Association press tour, where executives, producers and talent come to a hotel ballroom to present their wares to the nation's entertainment journalists and TV critics, both Williamson and Fox entertainment chief Kevin Reilly were questioned about the wisdom of airing a show as violent as The Following just over five weeks after the tragic shooting in Newtown, Connecticut. It was a theme that permeated the entire tour, with other network executives and showrunners being asked similar questions, but the harshest inquiries were reserved for Reilly and Williamson.

"If you noticed, the top drama on television last year was Walking Dead," one exec said. "[W]e must match the intensity, otherwise we're not going to entertain the audience.

Williamson, for his part, stood firm, saying that he's just trying to create entertainment, and that shootings like the ones in Newtown and Aurora were always on his and the writers' minds. "When I take pen to paper, there is a reaction to it, and it sort of finds its way into what I do," he told reporters.

But Reilly had the money quote of the entire tour, explaining that The Following is no gorier than standard procedural fare like CSI, and saying why he feels Fox needs to get back to the edginess it once had. The reason can be pretty much summed up in three words: People love zombies.

"We're not competing with just Criminal Minds. I'm competing with every show on cable. And if you noticed, the top drama on television last year was Walking Dead," he said. He went onto explain that, while complicated, intense cable shows like Homeland, Mad Men, and Breaking Bad gather up armfuls of Emmys, the audiences they pulled in weren't anything that made him sweat. But with AMC's Dead routinely pulling in more than 10 million viewers per week, he and the other networks are taking notice. "[W]e must match the intensity," he said, "otherwise we're going to be a pale comparison and we're not going to entertain the audience. And I think this show goes toe-to-toe with them on the level of intensity and ability to surprise and hold your interest."

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Joel Keller is a freelance writer who has contributed to The A.V. ClubThe New York Times, and Vulture. He is the former editor of TV Squad and hosts his own weekly podcast at AntennaFree.TV.

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