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Posted at 4:53 a.m. EST Wednesday, January 26, 2000

A PLETHORA OF PARANOIA

NETWORKS CAPITALIZE ON FASCINATION WITH THE WEIRD AND CREEPY DATE: Wednesday, September 11, 1996

R.D. Heldenfels

Beacon Journal

People fear different things. Spiders, snakes, bumps in the night. Loss of a job. Loss of love. Loss of liberty. Perhaps most of all, whatever unknown thing waits in the dark.

NBC Entertainment President Warren Littlefield peered into the darkness a few years ago, when his network was stuck in a ratings slump and Littlefield's own job was on the line.

`We were really sucking air,` he said. And like so many people before and since, Littlefield turned to the paranormal for answers.

`We filled up our schedule with a lot of specials,` he said. `We had 'Alien This.' We had 'Creature That.' We threw a lot of things together because, quite honestly, the audience seems to have an unbelievable fascination with this stuff.`

Littlefield and some of his programming peers may not believe in the paranormal, especially the frightening side of it, but they certainly believe in the public fascination.

This season, NBC has two bump-in-the-night series, Profiler and Dark Skies. Fox, home of the successful X-Files, is adding Millennium, another scary series from Chris Carter, who created The X-Files. UPN has gone paranoid with The Burning Zone.

The syndicated series Baywatch Nights, heavy on action and romantic comedy last season, has been changed into the adventures of spook chasers for this season. Erich Von Daniken, whose book Chariots of the Gods? is a best-selling benchmark in aliens-among-us nonfiction, is hosting a new special for ABC later this month.

Leonard Nimoy, who hosted the syndicated look at phenomena, In Search Of, from 1976 to 1982, is back on the beat as host of Ancient Mysteries for A&E.

Superstation WTBS will present an Abducted by UFOs special on Sunday.

Sightings, a former Fox series about the paranormal, is making new episodes for the Sci-Fi Channel.

EMMETT MILLER REAPPEARS

Emmett Miller, last seen in Northeast Ohio as a newsman for WOIO (Channel 19), is now hosting the syndicated series Strange Universe, which considers odd phenomena five times a week. Dan Aykroyd is hosting Psi Factor: Chronicles of the Paranormal, also for syndication. That's just a sampler of the lifestyles of the weird and creepy on view in the fall. There's also a separate group of shows about benign forces -- less successors to The X-Files than to Touched by an Angel -- that will be discussed in a story tomorrow. But what's prominent about the shows mentioned here is that they seem interested in preying on public fears and confusion -- they're paranoid even more than they're paranormal.

The remarkably similar dramas Millennium and Profiler are not shows about the paranormal per se. But as they follow experts who analyze especially sick criminals, they're looking at humans in alien terms -- as deadly counterparts to the murderous forces in the big-screen blockbuster Independence Day.

You can find a similar tone in the new syndicated drama Two, in which a man's life is brutally disrupted by the evil twin from whom he was separated as a child, or in the complicated CBS crime drama EZ Streets, awash in vast and complex conspiracies.

Shows about the paranormal are just one part of the landscape, albeit a part that's gotten considerable attention of late. And in TV, these are certainly boom times for fantasy.

SCI-FI CHANNEL EXPANDS

The Sci-Fi Channel -- presenting all weirdness, all the time -- is now available in more than 34 million cable homes, adding 10 million homes in just over a year, 3 million of those in June and July.

But fantasy has never really gone away from TV, either. A month before The X-Files put its chilly hands on viewers' throats, a far more benign fantasy, Quantum Leap, ended a four-season run.

Last season network TV made several forays into both the paranoid and paranormal, including American Gothic, the vampire saga Kindred: The Embraced and Space: Above and Beyond, which -- with alien invaders, hints of vast conspiracies and interplanetary combat -- seemed to anticipate Independence Day.

We could labor over cosmic explanations, as do so many of these shows -- and their likely viewers. Strange Universe's Miller says a friend insisted the alien-invasion shows were themselves part of an alien-and-government plot to get us used to extraterrestrials before they reveal themselves.

But big theories overlook the practical explanation. Just as many shows last season were seen as attempts to duplicate the success of Friends, this year continues programmers' attempts to come up with the next X-Files.

The X-Files is not yet a big hit with the entire viewing audience. If you just measure television households, it was in the three-way tie for 49th place in prime time last season.

But if you look at viewers 18 to 49 years old, an audience prized by TV advertisers, The X-Files jumps to 16th place. It was Fox's highest-rated series with that audience.

Among network dramas, it ranked third, behind only NBC's ER and ABC's NYPD Blue. Dramas with higher household ratings -- among them Law and Order, Chicago Hope, Touched by an Angel, Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman and Walker: Texas Ranger -- did not do as well with young adults as The X-Files.

Who wouldn't want a show with that sort of appeal? Actually, more people than you might think.

SCARY NOT FOR EVERYONE

For one thing, not everyone loves a good scare. WBNX (Channel 55) decided to drop Baywatch Nights after it went paranormal, with a spokeswoman contending that the show did not fit the station's family image. A mild example of the paranormal -- ABC's Sabrina, The Teenage Witch -- was put on the defensive at a July press conference when a reporter asked about possible backlash from viewers who equate witchcraft with Satanism.

`This isn't black magic,` said Paula Hart, executive producer of the series and mother of its star, Melissa Joan Hart. `This is fun, light, airy stuff, you know. There won't be any devil references.`

Some shows are more serious, especially when it comes to scaring people. Millennium was graphic to the point of repugnance in showing how a torture victim looked. But series creator Chris Carter insists, `You can only create an interesting and bright hero, to me, if you set him against a very dark background.`

And there's a risk of being seen as laughable. When a reporter asked Ancient Mysteries' Nimoy if his show was dealing in `crackpottery,` Nimoy replied: `We're doing a lot of stories that have great validity.`

But the bottom line comes from someone who's been laughed at and successful at the same time: David Hasselhoff.

A star and producer on Baywatch Nights (as well as its popular companion Baywatch), Hasselhoff has called The X-Files `much more cerebral than our show.` He prefers a more basic, jumpier kind of fear, citing movies like the original Alien. But he jumped on the paranormal bandwagon for pretty much the same reason Littlefield, other executives and a growing army of producers have.

`There's 130 things on (TV) just about all the time,` Hasselhoff said, `so you need something that's going to get people's attention.`

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