Can a Fox Audience Love a Serial Killer?

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Kevin Bacon, in his first series role, plays a damaged FBI agent chasing a cult leader-turned-killer.

The network can't put ads near schools as it courts a cable crowd for "The Following"

Is it Fox or FX? Viewers of the upcoming Kevin Bacon series The Following might need to double-check their DVRs. The gory psychological thriller from Scream and The Vampire Diaries producer Kevin Williamson that centers on an Edgar Allan Poe scholar (James Purefoy)-turned-serial killer features all the auspices of a cable drama: a flawed protagonist (Bacon is a damaged FBI agent in alcohol-infused semi-retirement), an A-list cast (it's his first regular series role), literary undertones, operatic violence and lots and lots of blood.

But will the bold genre play lure the masses required for broadcast TV success on a network known for Glee and American Idol? "We definitely feel pressure to bring in a big, broad audience with something that we are telling people right up front is very intense," says Fox Broadcasting COO Joe Earley. "But this show is such a fantastic, thrilling, edge-of-your-seat ride."

Indeed, with AMC's ultraviolent The Walking Dead notching nearly 11 million viewers (7.3 million in the 18-to-49 demographic) for its Oct. 14 premiere and such gory hits as FX's American Horror Story and Showtime's Dexter drawing buzz and ratings, broadcast networks are exploring how to push the programming envelope with darker dramas. Promos that began airing Nov. 11 (some during Horror Story) are intended to shock viewers and drive them to watch extended trailers for Following, which bows Jan. 21. And the main key art features a woman, nearly naked and with passages from Poe written on her skin, aiming a dagger at her eye. The graphic nature of the art required Fox marketers to come up with a backup PG-rated version that features Bacon and Purefoy. "There's one billboard where they can't place the art because it's opposite a school," says Earley. "We may end up with some malls and other places that won't run the key art."

Critical response to Following has been positive, which bodes well for a network in need of a hit after freshman drama The Mob Doctor failed to impress (the Nov. 5 episode pulled in 3.4 million viewers) and with Kiefer Sutherland's Touch (which returns in January) only a middling success. "Fox does need for this show to work," says Brad Adgate, senior vp research at Horizon Media. "Mob Doctor has to be a big disappointment for the network, and Fox can't depend on American Idol solely to pull them out of their ratings doldrums."