Why Faith-Based Audiences Are More Important Than Hollywood Admits

Duck Dynasty

Faith community represents a strong, passionate opportunity for entertainment biz

It happened again. This time it was Phil Robertson, the patriarch of “Duck Dynasty,” who pulled back the shades on an immense body of TV viewers who had apparently escaped the notice of top execs at A+E Networks.

But they should have known. It was this “mystery audience” that made History’s miniseries “The Bible” a smash hit not long ago. Yet A+E leaders Nancy Dubuc and Abbe Raven can be forgiven for failing to anticipate the nuclear backlash that benching the fuzzy-faced man from West Monroe, La., would stir after his condemnation of homosexual behavior in an interview with GQ magazine. There persists in Hollywood a common thread of perceptions that have hung a lot of film and TV execs out to dry on one end or shocked them with success on the other. It is a thread of mistaken notions about the faith community in the America, especially conservative ones of the Christian and Jewish variety.

Three things Hollywood needs to know about the mystery audience:

1. The market is huge. I estimate this “community of faith” at about 200 million of 312 million Americans. I start with the 78.5% or 245 million Americans calling themselves “Christian.” Then, I reduce this number an arbitrary 25% to allow for the most liberal Christians. This leaves 183.8 million.

Add to this number more conservative Jewish adherents and members of Christian offshoot groups like Mormons, and the non-practicing offspring of Catholic or Protestant parents and grandparents who have retained more conservative Christian core values. Although there is much diversity of opinion among this group, it is a huge market and an equally massive force with which to reckon if these folks get rankled.

2. Their passions run strong and deep. In a secular society with generally negotiable values, many of the folks in this community have built their lives on non-negotiables. Verities rooted in religious truth and holy writ like the Torah, the Bible or the Koran have transcendent sanction. They may go quiet about them when society pushes in another direction, but when pricked, they bleed their deepest beliefs and respond based on them, a la Robertson.

3. The stereotypes don’t fit. When we at Mastermedia Intl. consult with media execs to demystify the faith community — as we have done for three decades at a score of media companies including Variety — we are stunned at how new the information seems to be. It’s like we are describing Martians. The shock is the number who are African American or Hispanic, who run Fortune 100 companies and championship NFL and NBA teams, who head huge media operations, and, sometimes, occupy the White House. They are dazzled that evangelicals spend $2.1 trillion a year and consume a broad spectrum of media.

The notion that people of faith are just little old ladies in the Bible Belt doesn’t fit. Nor do the perceptions created by the faith community’s “jerk factor” — and every group has these folks — of hate-filled protesters, abortion clinic bombers or religio-political power-mongers bent on creating a fundamentalist U.S. theocracy. Neither are they monolithic in their beliefs. Some disagree with Robertson’s viewpoints and, most, his coarse expression of them.

So, why does this huge audience remain a mystery to the power brokers of media? First, they generally have no personal association with faith conservatives, especially born-again Christians. Second, they don’t read the writings of or personally enter into the world of the devout. Third, in all of their demographic research, they don’t get into the nuances of the core beliefs. Thus, they are shocked when believers speak them and receive gargantuan national support as happened in the “Duck Dynasty” shootout. Finally, media execs share a kind of PC — Philosophical Correctness — with their media colleagues. This insulates them from a host of competent, reasonable, salt-of-the-earth people out there who believe in Jesus, the Bible or Torah and a four-millennia-old code of moral values.

Shocking but true.

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  1. losik34 says:

    Слава Богу.
    Во имя Отца, и Сына, и Святаго Духа.

  2. I deeply appreciate Larry Poland’s viewpoint and think it does indeed represent the surprising number of educated and thoughtful believers, Jewish and Christian, who still maintain moral absolutes. Thinking, empowered people realize that God is still smarter than any of the rest of us, and that His ways work, and are long-term pleasurable. Give me my Bible and my brain, and thank you, Larry.

  3. John Shea says:

    How come Larry Poland has morphed into somebody called Terry Flores in Variety’s comment notification emails?

  4. John Shea says:

    Unfortunately, most of us do not understand Hebrew or old Greek, so translations are needed. Such translations often amount to rightist Fundamentalist talking heads versions, which so many accept at face value through sheer spiritual laziness. Billions of people worldwide believe in a wide variety of holy scriptures, translations and interpretations. Our Catholic bible, for example, has extra Old Testament books not in the Protestant version. And hundreds of millions of the faithful are progressive and liberal. My own Catholic church, by far the largest organization of any kind on Earth, is a very broad church indeed.

  5. Though I might have worded a few things differently, this is an excellent analysis of the gap between the Hollywood industry and the faith-based market. It’s very intriguing that we keep seeing these types of clashes. Much of the industry, if not most of it, has not invested the same effort into understanding the faith-based, Christian market as they have for other core values that define markets based on gender, life stages, or ethnicities. Variety’s Faith & Family Values conferences have been a solid resource for those of us who work in both the Hollywood and faith-based markets. I’m not saying everyone has to agree with the value system, but you better understand it if you are going to market to it. A&E clearly either didn’t understand or chose not to honor their relationship with their consumer audience.

  6. Mark says:

    Just leave that pathetic group of money hoars talk. Put them on TV. They’ll eventually hang themselves in more ways than one!

  7. BobJ says:

    Is Variety now allowing industry businessman to write self serving puff pieces whose purpose isn’t insight or illumination for readers but increasing company sales?

    The first clue was when Poland partitioned the liberal/religious demo as 25%. Every election for the last 20 years shows the christian demo is about evenly divided between libs and cons.

    When an author starts out with a fib, whe can the article go for the?

  8. mark baer says:

    Nice article. Well stated. Thanks for writing this.

  9. Hombre says:

    The commenters here who toss out the “75 and 85% liberal” Christian numbers remind me of the story of the NY media personality, Pauline Kael, who reportedly said, “I don’t know how Nixon won, nobody I know voted for him!”

    Denominational, watered down Christianity is on the decline. Evangelical Christianity is driving the growth of Christianity worldwide.

    Commenters like geri have evidently not noticed that Duck Dynasty is the highest rated show of its kind on cable. Presumably, like Kael, nobody he/she knows watches it. Exactly the point of the article.

    Does geri really imagine that the millions who protested A&E’s treatment of Phil were liberal, Dale Carnegie, Christians? LOL.

  10. geri031706 says:

    I too would suggest you got the liberal/conservative wrong. I’d estimate it to be 85% liberal and 15% conservative. All of them are Christians, but it’s the conservative group that refers to itself as “Christians”. The media has allowed them to do this, rather than correctly label them as Fundamentalist Christians. This group rabidly follows certain (but not all) sections of the bible. They are also very well organized and vocal. Meanwhile, the majority refers to itself as Catholic, Lutheran, Episcopalian, Baptist, etc. The majority defies being stereotyped as one. If the numbers were as the author suggests the ratings for programs that appeal to the Fundamentalist Christians would be three or four times higher than they are.

  11. What you call the mystery audience is nothing more than what was once called the silent majority.

    • John Shea says:

      I recall President Nixon invoking ‘the Silent Majority’ a lot. But his silent majority turned out to be a noisy minority in the end. Likewise Mr. Poland’s ‘Mystery Audience’.

    • geri031706 says:

      And perhaps using the term liberal when discussing faith is a misnomer. Lets just say the 85% are more open to interpretation than the 15% fundamentalist group is.

      • John Shea says:

        The Bible has been endlessly interpreted and misinterpreted for two thousand years. Likewise translated and mistranslated. Social conservatives have been among the worst offenders when it comes to (re)making it up as they go along. The literalism and legalism Fundamentalists have read into the Bible often date back no further in time and place than to nineteenth century North America. Contrary to the popular hymn, Moses would not recognize their ‘Old Time Religion’.

      • Hombre says:

        “And perhaps using the term liberal when discussing faith is a misnomer. Lets just say the 85% are more open to interpretation than the 15% fundamentalist group is.”

        Meaning they make it up as they go along, rather than referring to the Bible. Some might call that moral relativism, not liberal Christianity.

  12. Kathy from Austin says:

    John, Chris, Keith et al, you are proving Mr. Poland’s point. Dismissing the viewpoint of those of faith (of whatever stripe) is narrowing a potential audience by a significant number. While you may disagree with those, my interpretation of this blog is that moneymakers in production should not confuse philosophy with business reality.

    While it is fine to be smug and judgmental about others being PC while comforting doesn’t pay the bills outside of the PC bubble.

    • Ha! John, I think Moses would feel right at home…he hung out with people just like us for 40 years Bub;)

    • John Shea says:

      I am every bit as much a person of faith as Larry Poland, but of a different stripe, to use your own word. Far from dismissing Poland’s viewpoint, I paid great attention to it and took the trouble of commenting on it here. I simply disagreed with him, as is my right and perhaps duty. He presumes to speak for most Christians but most certainly does not.

      The other two commenters you mentioned made somewhat different points. Lumping us all together is more stereotyping of the kind Larry Poland indulged in.

      As for philosophy and business, Hollywood remains the greatest creator and exporter of cultural products to every corner of this Earth.

      • John Shea says:

        Hombre, I never heard of Poland or his grandly named Mastermedia International group before (and probably never will again). So I Googled them of course. He’s not a market analyst but an advocate for more movie and TV censorship.

        That MY comments challenge YOUR worldview is also coincidental, and you needn’t get worried or defensive either.

      • Hombre says:

        How do you know Poland is a person of faith. His piece is a market analysis, not a theological tome. If it challenges your worldview, that is merely coincidental. You needn’t worry or get defensive.

        OTOH, everybody knows Duck Dynasty holds great appeal for Episcopalian secularists! LOL.

  13. John Shea says:

    There’s no mystery at all really. And I’d reverse the Conservative/Liberal estimate. 75% liberal Christian and 25% conservative looks more likely. The American people are fairly evenly balanced politically, as so many presidential elections have shown, but tens of millions of political conservatives are middle-of-the-road liberal Christians, as polls on gay rights etc, have shown. Both Evangelicals and atheists are smaller minorities than media coverage might suggest.

    How could a majority ‘go quiet when society pushes in another direction’? Would they not BE society if they were a majority? Mr. Poland’s supposed critique of stereotypes actually stereotypes both church members and Hollywood, two groups that overlap more than he seems to realize.

  14. Chris Nickens says:

    So, we’re supposed to forgive hateful, ignorant remarks about blacks and gays because they come from a man of “faith,” who apparently represents millions of other churchgoers? This is a group the entertainment community needs to embrace? As for Christian stereotypes, it would be refreshing if Christians who are not so extreme in their views would publicly condemn such ugly outbursts, but they seldom do.

    • Keith Coppage says:

      So sad but true; liberal or at least non fundamentalists get embarrassed at reactions like these. Perhaps it’s all in the (faith) family– we don’t want open conflict within the church when we worship the same God. Indefensible, but there a certain logic to it. I sure had heck wouldn’t say it’s 75% to 25 though!

  15. Logan Huggins says:

    Incredibly well said. I could not agree more. Fantastic article.

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