Not so long ago, the Easter holiday, as far as mainstream TV networks were concerned, was defined by ABC’s annual airing of Cecil B. DeMille’s 1956 epic “The Ten Commandments.” Local stations might cue up the Fred Astaire-Judy Garland chestnut “Easter Parade.”
But the success of History’s “The Bible” miniseries in 2013 has spurred networks to take a second look at Holy Week leading into Easter as a showcase for event programming. National Geographic Channel has set March 29, Palm Sunday, as the premiere date for “Killing Jesus,” the latest in the series of telepics based on historical novels by Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard.
CBS is airing miniseries “The Dovekeepers,” set in biblical times, over four hours on March 31 and April 1. And NBC is launching its 12-hour “A.D: The Bible Continues” series on Easter Sunday, April 5. Both “Dovekeepers” and “A.D.” hail from the producers behind “The Bible,” Mark Burnett and Roma Downey.
In recent years the period between late March and early April had been a slower period for big longform and regular series launches, as networks would focus on midseason bows in January and February and hold the rest of their firepower until the May sweeps at the close of the traditional TV season. The heightened activity during the Easter period reflects the tilt toward year-round programming strategies. Miniseries and limited series like “Dovekeepers” and “A.D.” will help CBS and NBC cut down on the need for in-season repeats.
At the same time, Easter is a natural marketing opportunity for programs with biblical themes. In 2013, “The Bible” bowed on March 3 and aired over five consecutive Sundays, concluding on Easter with the story of the Crucifixion.
“There are probably several places we could have put ‘Dovekeepers’ on the schedule throughout the spring,” said Kelly Kahl, CBS’ scheduling guru and senior exec VP of primetime. “As we sat down and looked at the calendar, the timing during Holy Week just made sense. When you can take advantage of what’s going out in the wider world, it helps you piggyback on getting attention for your project.”
“Dovekeepers” is launching on a Tuesday following “NCIS” — no accident given that it stars Cote de Pablo, a former fan-favorite “NCIS” player.
“Killing Jesus” (pictured) is getting the global launch treatment from Nat Geo. The three-hour pic, from Ridley Scott’s Scott Free banner, will air in 171 countries and 45 languages. Kelsey Grammer, Stephen Moyer, Rufus Sewell and Emmanuelle Chriqui star alongside Haaz Sleiman in the title role.
“A.D.” opens with events surrounding the Crucifixion. However, Burnett told journos last month that they were never told by NBC to prepare for an Easter Sunday bow. He sees the timing as the work of a higher power — higher than even NBC’s top boss.
“We didn’t make it thinking we’d get an Easter Sunday premiere,” Burnett said Jan. 16 during the Television Critics Assn. press tour. “We had no idea when it would be on. … But we are people of deep faith, and we believe God’s hands are all over it and it was always intended to be on Easter Sunday.”