Why Violent, Gory TV Shows Are Still Hits and Why We’re Likely to See More of Them

How much TV violence is just too much?

Violence on TV has always been popular, but with new shows in new formats, it's going further, becoming more brutal and gory -- and fans can't seem to get enough of it.

Take 21st Century Fox's (FOXA) FX hit American Horror Story. From the moment a male heroin addict was violently raped by a creature with a spike-shaped appendage in a molting hotel room on the anthology show's Oct. 7 season premiere, critics and fans loyal to the normally bloody scripted series reacted in -- what else? -- horror.

But that didn't prompt most viewers to turn the channel, or fail to come back for more.

Ratings for the fifth season debut of Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk's American Horror Story, called Hotel for its focus on a grisly haunted Los Angeles hotel, were the second-best ever for a telecast on Fox's FX, drawing in an estimated 9.1 million viewers on a live+3 basis, according to Nielsen.

Viewers hardly appear satiated. Season four's American Horror Story: Freak Show premiere averaged a record-high 10 million viewers. And while viewership dipped for last week's equally bloody second Hotel episode -- featuring Evan Peters as the hotel's builder, raping and torturing an already dead victim -- the show still dominated as Wednesday's No. 1 cable show among adults 18 to 49.

Fans have also appeared to embrace this season's casting of pop music superstar Lady Gaga as a glam vampire - albeit often naked and ripping victims open to drink their blood.

So, what is American Horror Story's appeal, and will its success -- with more extreme violence this season than ever before - prompt other networks to also jump on the amped-up gore and cruelty bandwagon, if they haven't already?

Clearly, a trend has been forming: Comcast-owned  (CMCSA) NBC's Hannibal, an artfully filmed yet gruesome-scripted show about serial killers, gained an ardent fan following in prime time, despite being canceled this year after three seasons. CBS's (CBS) Showtime drama Dexter, which aired for eight seasons until 2013, was shocking at first and then widely accepted, earning a Golden Globe award in 2010 for its serial killer-playing star Michael Hall.

American Horror Story is arguably just another rider on the bandwagon.

"American Horror Story is clearly getting gorier, with more horrific images than ever before," said Tom Nunan, a lecturer at the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television, and founder and partner of independent film and TV production company Bull's Eye, which produced 2006 best picture Oscar winner Crash. "If a show is making money, the network will put up with almost everything. FX is selling American Horror Story as elegant, as elite, and can back it up with Emmy awards and nominations," said Nunan.

With the show airing at 10 p.m. on a cable network, FX has convinced its affiliates, advertisers, and even the Federal Communications Commission, that it can show images that more than push the limits of traditional tastes, Nunan said. That's because FX isn't competing with basic cable channels such as Lifetime or Time Warner's (TWX) TNT. It's competing with premium cable and streaming platforms such as Time Warner's HBO and Netflix (NFLX) , where the heady combo of over-the-top sexuality and violence has become more and more pervasive.

HBO's Sex and the City, which ran from 1998 to 2004, did its part to widen the boundaries for sexuality on TV, while the critically-acclaimed gangster drama The Sopranos, which aired from 1999 to 2007, similarly pushed the boundaries on violence, said Bloomberg Intelligence senior media analyst Paul T. Sweeney in a phone interview from New York.

Call it the "HBO effect," those shows spawned water cooler conversations, which made other networks take notice.

Those shows were followed by hits such as Kurt Sutter's FX violence-filled biker drama, Sons of Anarchy, which ended last year after seven seasons, and HBO's blood-soaked True Blood, with its sexualized selection of chiseled vampires and werewolves, which itself spawned a series of copycat shows during its 2008 to 2014 run. Add to the list AMC's (AMCX) zombie blockbuster The Walking Dead, which has all but owned Sunday nights since its gory debut in 2010.

Unquestionably, the production quality of TV horror has improved. Cable networks are spending millions of dollars on these spectacles, contributing to realistically brutal special effects, Sweeney added.

FX vampire virus show The Strain debuted last year after American Horror Story proved itself a bloody blockbuster, spanning seasons set in a haunted house, an asylum, a witch coven and a carnival sideshow. On Halloween, pay-TV network Starz (STRZ) will premiere its blood splatter-filled Ash vs Evil Dead, based on the cult classic Evil Dead films from the '80s and '90s, giving American Horror Story a run for its money.

"Horror and gore has always been popular in Hollywood," Sweeney said. "In the past 10 years, also, censorship limits have been loosened, and the envelope has been pushed with more channels than in the past."

The current popularity of horror shows, including American Horror Story, also has roots in a sense of instability stemming from the recent  recession, added Gary Vaughn, an associate professor of English at the University of Cincinnati, and author of the recent paper "One of Us: American Horror Story: Freak Show," which looked at last season's show.

"Part of the appeal of horror is in the generation of anxiety about upheaval -- and, of course, the hoped for restoration of order," he said. "The absence of order makes us value it even more. There is also a human aesthetic interest in the abnormal, sometimes to the extent of lurid voyeurism."

So is lurid voyeurism fast becoming the norm for viewers?

That TV audiences are increasingly numb to and more accepting of extreme levels of violence also puts pressure on show creators to ratchet up the gore beyond what's been shown in the past, or even a few seasons ago, possibly sacrificing nuance, storytelling and propriety in the process.

This season, Murphy and Falchuk also debuted Fox's campy horror sorority comedy Scream Queens, steeped in buckets of blood and serial killers, and yet that show's violence still represents a fraction of what is seen on American Horror Story: Hotel -- which Vanity Fair dubbed "cheap, poseur nihilism masquerading as risqué taboo flouting."

"Will the audience expect horror porn? Where is the line?" asked Nunan. "Somewhere, there needs to be the word 'art,' and not a move towards exploitation."

 

This article is commentary by an independent contributor. At the time of publication, the author held no positions in the stocks mentioned.

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