New telepic franchise, reality show have religious touch

BET, like a number of general entertainment cablers, has renewed faith in spiritually themed programming.

The Viacom-owned cabler is expanding the range of shows that it carries with overtly spiritual and religious themes, beyond its traditional focus on gospel music series and specials into narrative telepics, talkshows and reality skeins. The subject matter resonates strongly with the BET audience, execs say, and undoubtedly there’s a hope of drawing new viewers who might not otherwise sample BET fare. As part of the push, BET has optioned the rights to four novels by author Reshonda Tate Billingsley with plans for a telepic franchise produced with Queen Latifah’s Flavor Unit production banner.

The first of the four Billingsley adaptations, “Let the Church Say Amen,” is starting production this week in Atlanta (Daily Variety, Aug. 24). Steve Harris and Lela Rochon have been cast in the story of a larger-than-life pastor who has to come to terms with his dysfunctional family and wayward daughter. Naturi Naughton, Collins Curtis Pennie and Hosea Chanchez co-star.

The other Billingsley titles optioned are “I Know I’ve Been Changed,” “Everybody Say Amen” and “Say Amen Again.”

BET has also just shot a pilot for a talkshow hosted by Bishop T.D. Jakes. And it has a docu-reality series following Detroit’s Sheard family, which includes multiple generations of gospel music stars and Bishop J. Drew Sheard, who leads a megachurch in Motor City.

BET has long featured gospel music programs on its Sunday morning slate — “Bobby Jones Gospel” is the cabler’s longest-running original series at 32 years and counting — but the net is now bringing spirituality into primetime with unscripted series and the telepics. It’s a natural move for BET at a time when cablers from GSN, which is scoring with its “American Bible Challenge” gameshow, to TLC to National Geographic Channel are adding such fare to their lineups. Aspire, the African-American targeted cabler launched in June by Magic Johnson, has a wealth of programing with spiritual and inspirational underpinnings. So does cabler GMC (formerly the Gospel Music Channel), which is a partner in Aspire.

“We are trying to bring (spiritual themes) into the fabric of our programming in general,” said Charlie Jordan Brookins, BET’s senior veep of original programming.

BET programmers began looking for more spiritual fare after noticing the strong response from auds to such shows as “Sunday Best,” the gospel music competition show that just wrapped its fifth season with its highest ratings to date.

BET’s reality skein “The Family Crews,” focusing on thesp Terry Crews and his clan, also focused significant time on the family’s activities as observant Christians and generated a strong response from viewers.

Brookins said they’ve made an effort to ensure that spiritually themed programming is not overtly preachy, but rather offers a look at religion and faith as part of life.

“The Sheards,” now in production in Michigan, is at heart a family drama.

“It’s not about their faith. It’s about them as a family of faith,” Brookins said.

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