TV is finding its religion.
If programmers have often approached religion tentatively for all the obvious reasons, a niche-oriented TV world is slowly spawning signs of bravery (tinged with, perhaps an element of desperation), as those eager to stand apart from the pack seek to navigate what can be treacherous waters.
Genre offshoots are broadly split into two camps: Shows designed to appeal to Christians, who represent roughly three-quarters of the U.S. audience, and whose most vocal members often complain about feeling disrespected by mainstream media; and programs devoted to narrow religious or cultural groups, aiming to deliver exotic windows into arcane worlds.
In the former category, GSN — a network that has gradually morphed from its confining birth name Game Show Network — will introduce “The American Bible Challenge,” a gameshow testing biblical knowledge, hosted by comedian Jeff Foxworthy.
Although the look and trappings are familiar, the content and details aren’t. In the Aug. 23 premiere, a gospel choir sings, “Yes, Jesus Loves Me,” bracketing the commercial breaks, and contestants pray together before the final round.
GSN is a relatively small network, but industry sources are paying attention to whether “Bible Challenge” works, as well as other higher-profile projects, like History’s upcoming 10-hour miniseries, “The Bible,” from “Survivor” producer Mark Burnett.
On the flip side, TLC in particular has created what amounts to franchises based on minority faith or cultural groups. “All-American Muslim” sought to put a human face on a community misunderstood and vilified since the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, but the network has also delved into arcane belief systems and ethnic groups, including “Sister Wives” (about polygamists), “My Big Fat American Gypsy Wedding” (where gaudily attired teenage girls are paired off for marriage in accordance with their Romanichel traditions) and “Breaking Amish,” about young Amish renouncing their traditions to explore life in New York. That show premieres in September.
The bigger gambit, though, likely involves courting Christians, whom activists contend have spent years hungering for more uplifting programming. At the same time, groups like the American Family Assn. and Parents Television Council have seized on negative depictions — most recently in ABC’s since-canceled “GCB,” derived from a book titled “Good Christian Bitches” — to portray themselves as victims, yet again, of a Hollywood establishment hostile to their values.
Assuming more networks begin catering to this audience, there will be a certain “put up or shut up” factor to the gambit, as in, “Here’s what you’ve been asking for, will people really show up?”
Certainly, an anticipated deluge of broadly targeted, religion-infused projects didn’t materialize even after “The Passion of the Christ” collected $371 million at the domestic box office, with most religious themed movies and TV shows remaining on the margins.
“Any time people shy away from any type of programming, it’s because of fear,” says GSN exec VP of programming and development Amy Introcaso-Davis, who noted that as a smaller network, “We’re the right kind of place to take the risk.”
If such risks sound minimal, history says they’re not. Advocacy groups have frequently placed networks between a rock and hard place, chafing at the lack of depictions of people sharing their faith, while predisposed to react with hostility when they find dramatic portrayals unflattering.
Unscripted programming offers
a way to explore religion behind
the imprimatur of reality, and since GSN isn’t a ratings juggernaut, the network won’t require huge numbers to meet its bottom-line challenge.
While polls have shown a decline in Americans who self-identify as “religious,” such consumers remain a clear majority in the U.S. Those statistics and the perceived hunger for wholesome programming prompted Ben Simon, Walmart’s head of global family entertainment marketing, to dub the family audience “the biggest possible demographic you could hope to reach” during an address at Variety ‘s Faith and Family Summit.
Still, perceptions linger that what people say doesn’t necessarily mirror what they watch once safely behind closed doors — with plenty of failed family series to reinforce the point.
GSN has reached out to church groups and has won advance endorsements from orgs like the Dove Foundation, but the question remains what sort of flock will follow.
“It feels like the time is right for this show,” Introcaso-Davis says.
If so, don’t be surprised if we’re witness to another flood — the kind that in television inevitably traces the path any TV hit carves out.