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Why Faith-Based Audiences Are More Important Than Hollywood Admits

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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