Programming takes a page from the Bible

Docs are getting that old-time religion. Whether a pop-cultural ripple effect from “The Da Vinci Code” or just a reaction to the stress of 21st-century life, there is growing demand for biblical histories and faith-based programming.

“There has been a lot of pop culture that’s emerged within the last three years that’s brought some fairly religious content into the mainstream — ‘The Da Vinci Code,’ ‘The Tomb of Jesus,’ ” Ellis Entertainment CEO Stephen Ellis notes.

“We’re finishing ‘Something About Mary Magdalene.’ It’s a one-hour doc in HD which reveals some new scholarship on who Mary really was and changes your thinking about her role in early Christianity.

“This seems to be an area of history that has suddenly come to life, and there are a lot of new theories which keep it interesting.”

Stephanie Rockmann-Portier, head of factual programs for Alliance Atlantis, believes advances in digital technologies have been integral to the trend.

“You’re dealing with a subject that previously was dry, with lots of long shots of the Dead Sea, and thanks to CGI, it suddenly becomes an extremely lively and visually appealing piece,” she says.

While big-budget science docs such as “Walking With Dinosaurs” will always be in demand, Granada head of factual Mark Reynolds has seen interest grow in more personal topics.

“There is big science, but there’s also science that has a resonance with people’s everyday lives,” Reynolds says. “That has also been a trend in the whole climate-change and global-warming issues. This was always an area that people said, ‘Yes we know about it, but we don’t want to be lectured, these are very depressing shows’

“But I think finally that has changed: People do want context, they do want information. But it does have to be presented in an informative and entertaining way. It has to be very visual, it has to be accessible, and it has to have relevance. It can’t just be a dry lecture to them.”

The more extreme end of the spectrum, the so-called “shock docs” — programs dealing with extreme medical conditions or physical handicaps — have fallen out of favor in Britain but maintain high international interest elsewhere.

Says Reynolds: “What people are buying into is that they are often very positive films portraying people who are coping with incredible adversity. The films that are a bit dark, where there is not necessarily an upside, those are the ones that don’t sell as well.”

One reason for the continued strength of factual programming has been the explosion of niche or specialty channels, says FremantleMedia VP Mark Gray.

“You are seeing fewer of the traditional documentaries air on the terrestrial channels and more on the specialist channels,” Gray says, adding that as a result, “traditional terrestrial broadcasters tend to be doing factual programming in magazine formats.”

Gray admits one downside is that niche channels have less money to spend.

Rockmann-Portier says there has been a similar evolution in the lifestyle area of the factual genre.

“The programming that we are seeing today is really a hybrid between those boring DYI shows and reality TV that have morphed into really great, entertaining shows. And they are so much cheaper for broadcasters to produce than expensive primetime dramas.

“While the blockbuster movie is not dead, it doesn’t have the same importance on television that it had 10 years ago. Factual programming — either through lifestyle shows or well-made documentaries — has really taken over broadcasters’ primetime schedule. And that’s a very good thing for us.”

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