by Robert Dominguez (published in Daily News Front Page)Spirited TV programmers are finding that their message is the medium
Psychic James Van Praagh has always made a nice living by claiming to see dead people.
But he has made a killing with his ability to foresee how television audiences would be entranced by programming about psychic phenomena, haunted houses and other otherworldly encounters.
He's channeling a trend that has ghost-themed shows materializing on several, well, channels.
On TV these days, paranormal is the new normal.
Van Praagh, a best-selling author of several books on communicating with spirits, is now the executive producer of "Ghost Whisperer," an upcoming CBS series that stars Jennifer Love Hewitt as a newlywed who talks to the dead.
Following in the otherworldly footsteps of NBC's similarly themed drama, "Medium," "Ghost Whisperer" is based on an actual psychic, and is just one of a slew of new shows about the paranormal — all featuring real-life ghost hunters, crime-solving mediums or supposedly haunted places.
"I predicted this would happen five years ago on 'Larry King,' right after 'The Sixth Sense' came out," says Van Praagh, referring to the 1999 hit film about a boy who sees dead people.
"But what's so amazing," he adds, "is how it's become much more acceptable in the mainstream, where you're now seeing more and more of these types of shows."
The TV landscape has become a veritable ghost town in recent months, led in great part by the success of "Ghost Hunters," which began its second season in July.
Shown weekly on the Sci-Fi Channel, the reality series features a team of paranormal investigators from Rhode Island who travel to supposedly haunted sites across the U.S. and attempt to gather evidence of ghostly activity, using such high-tech equipment as infrared cameras and digital recorders.
"This kind of show is popular because almost everyone has had a paranormal experience or knows of someone who has," says Grant Wilson, one of the lead investigators on "Ghost Hunters."
Now viewers will have plenty of chances to be creeped out, as several new shows have been patterned after "Ghost Hunters."
In June, Biography Channel launched "Dead Famous: Ghostly Encounters," a reality show that pairs a female skeptic with a male psychic — think Mulder and Scully of "The X Files" — chasing after the spirits of such deceased famous folk as Frank Sinatra, Marilyn Monroe and Jim Morrison.
The Travel Channel, which regularly produces such spooky specials as "America's Most Haunted Places" and "Haunted Hotels," premiered "Most Haunted" last month. The Friday-night show features a team of paranormal investigators that goes to sites in Europe.
Recently returning for a third season on Court TV is "Psychic Detectives," a series that recounts real-life cases on which cops and psychics worked together.
Based on its popularity, in November Court TV is debuting "Haunting Evidence," which has yet another investigative team — a psychic, a medium and a forensics expert — visiting "haunted" crime scenes.
Not everyone views these shows as harmless entertainment. Joe Nickell, a columnist for Skeptical Inquirer magazine who regularly debunks psychics, mediums and other paranomal phenomena, calls the current trend "shameful."
"You have ignorant people on these shows misleading the public," says Nickell. "The two most egregious ones are 'Psychic Detectives' and these hapless guys on 'Ghost Hunters' with their Radio Shack equipment 'detecting' ghostly phenomena. It's nonsense, because they're not scientists.
"There's no end to these stories being out there, because they sell," adds Nickell. "That's the bottom line." Meanwhile, Van Praagh has turned his self-professed "gift" for communicating with the spirit world into a cottage industry.
Besides his books, two years ago he hosted "Beyond," a syndicated daytime talk show where he professed to contact the spirits of his guests' loved ones. And his life has been the subject of two TV movies — in which he has been portrayed by such heavyweights as Tom Selleck and Ted Danson.
Van Praagh sees even more opportunities to capitalize on the public's increasing interest in otherworldly topics. This fall, in addition to "Ghost Whisperer," he's producing two shows that will merge the paranormal with two of the hotter trends in reality programming.
"Possessed Possessions," a special for The Learning Channel, will have psychics reading the energy from people's belongings. "It's like a creepy 'Antiques Roadshow,'" says Van Praagh.
The other show, for A&E, will have people receiving "psychic intuitive makeovers," he says.
"This all wasn't as accepted as it is now," says Van Praagh. "More people than ever are believing in life after death. They're looking for other belief systems and for other ways to deal with the world around them, and people want to find out what this is all about."