Cable Shows Turn to Christian Themes
With Some 75 Million Practicing Americans, Faith-Based Fare Fills Large Niche for Nets
By R. Thomas Umstead -- Multichannel News, 5/28/2012 12:01:00 AM
Several cable networks are looking to convert viewers with original scripted series, movies and reality fare featuring Christian themes and storylines.
From comedies like TV Land’s pastor-themed comedy Soul Man to BET’s gospel music-tinged competition series Sunday Best to more ambitious projects —like History’s upcoming miniseries The Bible — networks are bringing the Good News to viewers looking for positive and often faith-affirming content on television during difficult times.
“The last four or five years haven’t been that easy in America, and when times are tough and things are hard for people faith becomes even more important,” GMC TV president and CEO Charles Humbard said. “I think there’s even a greater spotlight on programming that upholds people’s values today that counterbalances all the negative messaging out there.”
When most people think of Christian-themed programming, what comes to mind are the evangelical services seen on religious networks like EWTN, Trinity Broadcasting Network, INSP and The Word Network. But entertainment shows with Christian themes have littered the small screen for decades: popular past shows such as family drama Little House on The Prairie (NBC, 1974-83), sitcom Amen (NBC, 1986-91) and dramas Touched by an Angel (CBS, 1994-2003) and, more recently, Saving Grace (TNT, 2007) all prominently featured elements of Christian faith.
BIG FLOCK FOR FAITH FARE
And such programs appeal to a huge audience base — 75 million Americans describe themselves as active Christians, according to a recent Simmons Research study.
“If you look across America, more than 80% [of people] call themselves Christians or people of faith and 48% are active in the church,” Humbard said. “What’s mainstream are people that either relate to or live by faith as a real guidepost in their life, so these shows are actually mainstream themes, [and] a lot of producers and other networks are just now discovering how they resonate.”
GMC’s slate of gospel-themed stage plays — which mix comedy with a serious storyline and, in most cases, an inspirational ending — has resonated with the network’s core female viewer, particularly African-American women. For Richer or Poorer drew nearly 200,000 total viewers on April 14. That’s a category high for the network, and was the second-most– watched series among 18-to-49 and 25-to-54- year-old African- Americans on cable for the evening, according to Nielsen.
Viewers are looking for faith-affirming programming that isn’t preachy, but embodies positive life values that aren’t reflected elsewhere on the small screen, Humbard said. “I think people are getting a little burned out with the usual [show] formulas where you have unnatural conflict and the sex and violence that comes with them. I think people are looking for quality entertainment that makes them smile or challenges them but does not conflict with their values. People don’t want to be preached at, but rather entertained with programming that affirms and upholds but doesn’t conflict with people’s values.”
Today’s entertainment-based, religious-themed shows are off ering a more contemporary look at Christian faith and values, often through the lens of the church and its pastors, clergymen and parishioners.
“The church is like the hub of the community — there are funerals, baptisms, teen and marriage counseling [and] day care — it’s a seven-day-a-week building,” TV Land president Larry Jones said. “Everybody thinks mostly about that Sunday- morning session, but the reality is the pastors are there seven days a week, dealing with a lot of diff erent things.”
TV Land’s The Soul Man, debuting June 20, will try to capture that reality. It stars Cedric the Entertainer as a former R&B music star who returns to his Christian roots as pastor of his father’s church. The Soul Man focuses on the church as a workplace environment, rather than a house of religion, Jones said. “The whole idea of that was unique — in many ways we think about this not necessarily as a churchbased show but rather a workplace comedy that happens to be [in] a church.”
When real-life religious leaders are spotlighted in TLC’s Preacher Wives — which looks at the lives of several Atlanta-based pastors and their spouses — it’s told from a lifestyle perspective, rather than in religious tones. “Fundamentally our shows focus on the lifestyles and not necessarily the faith,” TLC general manager Amy Winter said. “I think the faith is the backbone of the lifestyle choices that we show throughout the series. I wouldn’t say we’re so focused on the religion itself; it’s just a piece of their lifestyle.”
We TV’s Mary Mary gives a behind the scenes look at the lives of the famed contemporary Gospel sister duo Erica and Tina Campbell. The Campbell sisters say that the lives of faith-based characters have not been reflected in mainstream reality shows, but have appeal to viewers. We TV renewed the series for a second season after it averaged nearly 600,000 viewers in its freshman run.
“It’s good to see people be verbal about their Christian faith … but living a normal life,” Tina Campbell said. “You’re not going to see us in the pulpit preaching and trying to perfect folks, but you’ll see us living a real life and having challenges and not be able to cope with it all.”
Some networks are building shows directly around the Good Book itself. History will team with prolific reality series producer Mark Burnett to produce a five-hour, five-part series, The Bible.
The series will chronicle the Bible from Genesis to Revelation and will air sometime in 2013, according to network officials.
History president and general manager Nancy Dubuc said the Bible is one of the world’s most significant books and the series will bring its stories “to life for a new generation.”
GOSPEL GAME SHOW
With more than three-quarters of Americans identifying with some form of Christianity, Amy Introcaso-Davis, executive vice president of programming for GSN, said Christianity-themed programming is an untapped genre for cable. Later this year, GSN will introduce The American Bible Challenge, a new game show that challenges contestants on their knowledge of the Bible.
“We see the American Bible Challenge as a authentic, fun way to reach that audience — it’s very fun and very relatable,” she said, adding that each episode of the Jeff Foxworthy- hosted show will feature a gospel choir onstage.
“There’s nothing hokey about it — it’s contemporary, so I think churches themselves have gone in a different direction, so the media is going to follow them in some way.”
Introcaso-Davis said she’s not concerned about turning off atheists or non-Christian religious believers with the series, although she admits that religious-themed programming will always be a tad controversial because of the many divergent beliefs that people hold. “People believe in what they believe in, but the great thing about this country is people have the right to believe what they want,” she said. “At the end of the day [religion] is very mainstream — religion does touch your life even if you’re not a believer, so it’s natural that we should be exploring it in all parts of the media.”