Help from above

Producers tap into spiritual side of auds

When NBC opted to do miniseries “Revelations,” about the Apocalypse, and ABC fast-tracked a remake of “The Ten Commandments,” the writing was on the tablet: the nets — like Mel Gibson — had seen the light, in this case a greenlight in regards to programming in which scripts heavily reference Scripture.

But beyond these productions, the question remains: Can Hollywood really sell religion in primetime?

“Given the hardening of the agenda by the right, I think some of this kind of programming is going to be pushed forward now,” says Robert Greenblatt, president of Showtime Entertainment, who greenlit telepic “Our Fathers,” about sexually abusive priests in the Catholic Church in Boston. “But I also think it will continue to be an incredible taboo for advertisers. They don’t want to be associated with anything deemed controversial or upsetting. That’s been true forever and I don’t think it’s changed.”

Greenblatt says he decided to do “Our Fathers” not because religion is a hot topic, but because the problem in the Catholic Church continues. “This is a situation that deserved to have a light shined on it.”

Still, it comes at a fortuitous time. When ABC premiered “Mitch Albom’s The Five People You Meet in Heaven” in December, the telefilm drew 18.6 million viewers. NBC’s six-part “Revelations” premiered robustly, with 15.3 million viewers despite facing ratings juggernaut “American Idol” in the timeslot.

Those kinds of numbers persuaded producer Robert Halmi Sr. to move forward with a $25-million-plus remake of “The Ten Commandments,” again for ABC. The Hallmark Entertainment chairman — the man who put the mega in such mini-series as “The Arabian Nights,” “Alice in Wonderland,” and “Don Quixote” — says while he often dreamed of parting the Red Sea with today’s special effects technology, the potential for actually doing it didn’t arise until one year ago.

“It became clear to me that spiritual shows are starting to work,” he says. “Mel Gibson’s movie (“The Passion of the Christ”) happened, our recent presidential election hinged on moral values, and I knew the time was right to talk about ‘The Ten Commandments.’ ”

Yet selling the programming to mainstream audiences can be a dilemma. NBC decided to play it safe and sell “Revelations” as more of a mystery-thriller, as opposed to a fresh spin on the Bible’s “end of days.” Execs say they built the marketing pitch along the lines of “The Da Vinci Code” as opposed to “The Passion of the Christ.”

“Certainly there was a biblical background, but to draw in people from all over the spectrum, we built it as an onion that had to be peeled,” says Vivi Zigler, NBC’s senior vice president of marketing and advertising services.

The net started its campaign by creating its own mystery, putting out the Latin phrase omnium finis imminet (the end is near) in strategic postings throughout the country and on the Internet.

“Just that phrase, with nothing else attached to it, began to build chatter,” Zigler says. “People were wondering what it all meant, which was great fun for us.”

The network’s faith was rewarded with inspiring opening numbers — its best for the timeslot in some nine months. Facing “American Idol” weekly, the series dropped just 13% in its second sesh, then performed to a solid if not stellar finish (it averaged a 4.2 rating with 11.3 million viewers).

Does a story about “The End” mark the beginning for more faith-based programming? The possibility is certainly in the air.

“TV really is reflective of our culture as a whole. In some ways it sort of sets the agenda, and in other ways it’s just a mirror of the agenda that exists,” says Bill Carroll, vice president and director of programming for the Katz TV Group. “The networks always welcome successful programming. If these shows are successful, they’ll be followed with similar things.”

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