NBC Turns to Higher Power With ‘Bible’ Sequel

Despite 'The Bible's' boffo ratings, tapping into religious market isn't always easy

Given where NBC has been ratings-wise, it shouldn’t be a surprise to see the network throw a Hail Mary pass.

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.

Popular on Variety

More TV

  • YouTube logo

    BBC Studios to Explore 'The Edge of Science' for YouTube Originals

    The BBC’s production division, BBC Studios, has won its first YouTube Originals commission, “The Edge of Science.” Starring presenter and science enthusiast Rick Edwards and YouTuber Colin Furze, “The Edge of Science” will carry out a range of stunts and experiments to explore if it’s possible to levitate. The presenters will meet the scientists behind [...]

  • Kirsten Dunst'On Becoming a God in

    Kirsten Dunst Talks 'Little Women,' 'Interview With a Vampire' Reboots

    Kirsten Dunst was just 11 years old when she skyrocketed into stardom as Claudia in “Interview with a Vampire,” but now Dunst says her age is the only thing keeping her from reprising the role in a hypothetical reboot. “I mean I’m too old, right?,” she told Variety at the premiere of “On Becoming a God [...]

  • A Planned Parenthood clinic is seen,

    Variety to Forgo Annual Emmy Party for Donation to Planned Parenthood

    Variety has decided to make a donation to Planned Parenthood in lieu of hosting this year’s annual Emmy Awards nominees party in partnership with Women In Film. The decision comes in response to Planned Parenthood’s Aug. 19 announcement that it will drop funding over the current administration’s “unethical” rule blocking the organization from discussing its [...]

  • Rebel Wilson Isn't It Romantic

    TV News Roundup: Rebel Wilson to Host First Australian Amazon Original Series

    In today’s TV news roundup, the NFL and Pluto TV announce the launch of a new channel, and Rebel Wilson is named as the host of the first Amazon original series to come out of Australia.  CASTING Rebel Wilson is set to host and executive produce the Australian Amazon original series “LOL: Last One Laughing,” the [...]

  • Moffatt Family with the Himba tribe

    U.K.’s Channel 4 Takes British Family to Africa in New Reality Show

    U.K. broadcaster Channel 4 has greenlit new factual entertainment format “The British Tribe Next Door,” which will see a British family spend four weeks with a remote tribe in Namibia. The twist in this format is that, unlike most adventurers, the participants don’t say goodbye to the comforts of their home — instead, they take them with [...]

  • Christian Serratos as Rosita Espinosa - The

    'Walking Dead' Star Christian Serratos in Talks for Selena Series at Netflix

    Christian Serratos is in negotiations to star in the upcoming Netflix series based on the life of Tejano music star Selena Quintanilla, Variety has confirmed with sources. The series was announced back in December and is described as a coming of age story following Selena (Serratos) as her dreams come true and all the heart-wrenching [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content