Despite 'The Bible's' boffo ratings, tapping into religious market isn't always easy
The announcement the network has snagged producers Mark Burnett and Roma Downey’s follow-up to their high-rated miniseries “The Bible” has a certain amount of logic to it. After the boffo numbers the 10-hour project delivered for History channel, it makes sense broadcasters would look to get in on the action, and Burnett has a strong relationship with NBC right now as the producer of “The Voice.”
Still, the dreams of gilded ratings and attracting flocks of the faithful — transforming prophets into profits — should be tempered at least a bit by the thorny nature of plunging into such territory, which is one reason why networks have tended to shy away from it in the past.
Nothing is more sensitive or personal than religion, and while Burnett’s take on “The Bible” was so devout and straightforward as to be unlikely to antagonize Christians, even that wasn’t devoid of controversy, given the manufactured flap about how Satan resembled President Obama.
Clearly, there’s a vast audience, primarily consisting of evangelical Christians, which feels under-served — and often disrespected and abused — by the programming that emanates out of Hollywood. Yet that audience itself is not monolithic, and won’t blithely turn up for every production with a spiritual component, especially if it becomes obvious programmers are pandering to them. Too often, producers have taken this market for granted — figuring a couple of screenings at mega-churches is enough.
In addition, the faith-based audience has far more product available to them than ever before, including a burgeoning market for overtly Christian-themed movies. The main problem with a lot of those productions has been that they’re cheaply made and lousy, which is why Christians working within the system — many of whom were represented at Variety’s recent Purpose summit — have at times pleaded for greater understanding from like-minded members of the faith-oriented audience.
In the past, for example, ABC was skewered by advocacy groups for airing the 1997 series “Nothing Sacred,” a drama built around a flawed but clearly devout priest. Such exercises have tended to frighten execs away from braving such material, feeling one misstep will unleash the wrath of, um, you know who down upon them.
Yes, there was “Touched by an Angel,” but if you’re going to have multiple depictions of religion — especially in a series format — there would seem to be a need for some creative latitude to construct drama or muster laughs.
That said, the current TV landscape has evolved during the intervening years. It’s now built largely around catering to niches. As a consequence, even a portion of the more than 70% of self-identified Christians in the U.S. certainly provides networks a great big sweet spot at which to aim.
Given those factors, NBC probably won’t be the only broadcaster to become a bit bolder about braving religious themes in the coming months. Hollywood may be amoral and godless, but it’s nothing if not pragmatic when it comes to the bottom line.
Nevertheless, those choosing to walk this path should remember why it hasn’t always easy, and that even with Jesus as your co-pilot, the trip to ratings heaven can be a turbulent flight.