It’s the greatest story ever told. But that doesn’t mean it’s easy to tell, even in 10 hours.
The hardest part of mounting “The Bible” miniseries that bows Sunday on History was determining which stories would be brought to life in the production steered by Mark Burnett and Roma Downey.
The husband-and-wife collaborators assembled a prestigious team of scholars and clergymen to help them select the material for the mini, emphasizing seminal and spiritually significant moments from the Old Testament and New Testament.
From there, the focus was on ensuring that the project delivered compelling drama with high production values. Although “The Bible” has built-in appeal to religious viewers, Nancy Dubuc, prexy of A+E Networks, has been determined to make sure the mini is seen as an entertainment event first and foremost.
“Our focus is on exposing this (miniseries) to the biggest, widest audience possible,” Dubuc says. “We know this is a subject that has universal appeal. And we know that when we take on a topic related to history our audience will come. Our job here is to make sure there is great sampling of the miniseries on a much broader, commercial basis.”
Burnett and Downey have been on the stump for “The Bible” for months, taking part in screenings at churches around the country and promoting it in Christian media circles. History, meanwhile, has taken to the bigscreen with trailers running in theaters for the mini, among other large-scale off-air placements.
On A+E Networks channels, which include A&E and Lifetime, promos for the epic have been hard to miss. “The Bible” will air on History in two-hour segs across five Sundays, culminating March 31, which is Easter Sunday. Lifetime will carry encores of the episodes on Mondays.
“When Mark and Roma speak about this project, their passion is so evident, it lends authenticity and meaning to the whole effort,” Dubuc says. “The marketing they’re doing punctuates the size and scope of what we’ve done.”
Burnett and Downey approached History with their pitch for the epic tale in 2011 because they had been impressed with how the cabler captured pivotal moments in the vast expanse of American history in the 2010 docuseries “America: The Story of Us.”
Dubuc admits that after growing up “as a Catholic school girl,” her mind raced when the pair first broached the subject of tackling the Bible as a narrative story. Among the stories featured in “The Bible” are tales of Noah, Abraham, Moses and John the Baptist as well as the birth, crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus.
“The very nature of doing that was overwhelming,” Dubuc says. It took a year for Burnett and Downey to work with their advisers and hone the story selections into 10 hours.
“Once we got more comfortable with how we would approach it, we knew what we had,” Dubuc says. “It is not an overly religious story, and you don’t need to be religious to understand the influence of this book.”
Indeed, among those who are not familiar with Scripture, Dubuc believes, “there’s a genuine curiosity about the stories and characters that have shaped so many things” — from national boundaries to laws to civic and social institutions. She credits Burnett and Downey for overseeing a “masterful” production that is feature-film quality. (In fact Burnett and Downey aim to assemble a shortened version for theatrical release in foreign markets as well as the U.S.)
Burnett hopes that the mini will “change peoples’ lives” by encouraging viewers to pay heed to the moral and spiritual messages behind the stories. “This can reach a whole generation of people who have never been to church,” he says.
History has a lot on the line with “The Bible” being the follow-up to the cabler’s first scripted mini, last year’s “Hatfields & McCoys.” That six-hour mini surpassed all expectations with a huge turnout (14 million-plus viewers) over three nights and nabbed an Emmy and Golden Globe win for star Kevin Costner.
“The Bible” is serving as the launching pad for History’s first scripted series, “Vikings,” which also bows Sunday.
“We’re a big fan of the big swing around here,” Dubuc says. “I can’t think of a bigger one than (‘The Bible’). And it won’t be the last.”