This week, despite little critical affection and modest ratings, “Ghost Whisperer” will enter its fifth season. Even more miraculously this show may have resurrected Friday as an evening of major offerings from the networks.
“Ghost Whisperer” survives thanks in part to viewers’ fascination with the paranormal and the sex appeal of Ms. Hewitt, who plays Melinda in a succession of cleavage-baring outfits. But, according to its executive producers, Kim Moses and Ian Sander, as well as executives at CBS, a large measure of the show’s tenacity comes from what Ms. Moses calls the “total engagement experience” of integrated Web sites, Webisodes, comic books, novelizations and, yes, the book “Ghost Whisperer Spirit Guide.” All of which keep its audience invested in the characters and coming back every Friday night.
“The most remarkable thing they’ve done is be so ahead of the curve on promotion and marketing for the show,” said Nina Tassler, president of CBS Entertainment. “They really have focused on exploiting, in a good sense, every platform and every new way to deliver the different kinds of messages of their show to different audiences.”
Ms. Moses and Mr. Sander, whose credits include “Profiler,” understood they needed to use everything in their growing media toolbox to keep their spooky series alive.
They did research when CBS picked up “Ghost Whisperer” and found that 82 percent of new Friday shows didn’t make it to a second season. According to Mr. Sander, “We said, ‘This is a problem.’ ”
It hasn’t always been that way. When people wanted to find out who shot J. R. (83 million did, in November 1980), they tuned into “Dallas” on a Friday night. “Miami Vice” and “The X-Files” were Friday night shows too. More recently, though, the evening has been a black hole as people turn to other leisurely pursuits on the first night of the weekend.
TV glory, of course, is relative: “Ghost Whisperer” averages about 9 million viewers an episode in a world in which “American Idol” draws nearly three times that number.
“I think the networks have a lower threshold for success on Friday because they have low expectations about ratings and the median age of the audience,” said Brad Adgate, senior vice president and corporate research director for the ad buyer Horizon Media.
“If ‘Ghost Whisperer’ was on Thursday night,” he added, “it would have been yanked years ago. But what did it replace? ‘Joan of Arcadia.’ ”
Still, “Ghost Whisperer” consistently wins its time slot, and its steady ratings look increasingly better as overall network numbers continue to tumble.
Some of the elements for maintaining that consistency are cooked up at Sander Moses Production’s offices at Universal Studios, where Ms. Hewitt’s wardrobe occupies several corridors of office space. Here is where the “total engagement experience” is sussed out: How to “drive eyeballs,” as Ms. Moses puts it, from the show to the Web site to the online merchandise to the video games and back to the show. And how to find new audiences at colleges and fan-boy conventions like Comic-Con.
For instance, after an episode about a haunted dollhouse, a video game was added to the Web site featuring a haunted dollhouse. When viewers expressed interest in what it felt like to be a ghost, a Webisode was added to provide a ghostly point of view. Then there are the 10 comic books, 3 novels, trading cards and Ghost Whisperer: The Board Game.
The spark for all these offshoots came from an experience Ms. Moses and Mr. Sander, who are married to each other, had on their previous show “Profiler.” As Mr. Sander explained, that show had a serial killer who was never seen but was constantly tracking the hero, Sam. “Then, during a sweeps show, we went to his lair, he was on the Internet, the camera went over his shoulder and you saw ‘jackotrades.com.’ We had that Web site and at that very moment people went online to talk to the serial killer.” And to tell the killer that the police were on his trail.
Did it trouble them that their viewers had been trying to help a psychopath? “Of course,” Mr. Sander said, laughing, “but it also lit a light bulb: people loved connecting. It showed us the place we are now in television. A big chunk of the audience wants to experience it through multi-platforms, which obviously include the Internet. But other things too.”
At this point all the ancillary efforts, be they online, in print or via bonus features on the show’s DVDs, don’t seem to be big moneymakers themselves.
But “Ghost Whisperer” has already done its bit for the rehabilitation of Friday nights. This season NBC is programming “Southland” and “Law & Order,” ABC has “Ugly Betty” and Fox is bringing back “Dollhouse.” “The fact that we put ‘Medium’ there,” Ms. Tassler said of the show that CBS salvaged from NBC, “shows we have tremendous confidence in Friday nights.”
To deal with the increased competition Ms. Moses and Mr. Sander will need to make their offshoots even more innovative. But that’s a challenge they relish. “Most show runners and executive producers won’t get involved in this stuff because they don’t believe they benefit,” Ms. Moses said. “What Ian and I believe is that it helps us break through the clutter of Friday night and keep people coming back.
“After all, everybody’s got a ghost story.”