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Bishops oppose Catholic League on show

NCR Staff

Four bishops have joined the growing chorus of Catholic support for ABC’s “Nothing Sacred,” signing an ad that directly challenges charges by the Catholic League that the show is anti-Catholic.

Meanwhile, as the drama, set in an urban parish, enters the midpoint of its scheduled 13-episode run, sources inside the network say ABC is likely to extend the life of the show. A change in the show’s day and time was rumored at press time.

ABC recently purchased three more scripts for “Nothing Sacred,” which is scheduled through this month’s Neilsen sweeps period and into December.

Bishop Raymond Lucker of New Ulm, Minn., and auxiliary bishops Francis Murphy of Baltimore, Peter Rosazza of Hartford, Conn., and Thomas Gumbleton of Detroit have signed on to the draft of an advertisement defending “Nothing Sacred.” While decisions about whether the ad will run and where and when it would appear are still under discussion, NCR obtained an advance copy.

The text of the ad says Catholic leaders cannot “stand idly by while a wonderful television show is unfairly maligned.”

“There are many voices of Catholicism in America,” the ad states. “The Catholic League, which has orchestrated an advertiser boycott of the program, does not represent them all. In fact, by their own numbers, they represent less than one percent.

“They do not speak for most American Catholics. They do not speak for us. We believe ‘Nothing Sacred’ has wit, intelligence and compassion and can serve as a positive vehicle for discourse.

“We hope advertisers will continue to support ‘Nothing Sacred.’ We certainly do.”

The ad would carry the names of more than 50 priests and women religious in addition to the bishops. Jesuit Fr. Eddie Siebert, who serves as a technical adviser for “Nothing Sacred,” collected the signatures.

Lucker said he’s seen every episode of “Nothing Sacred,” and despite some inaccuracies, he likes it and feels “they’ve raised some very good questions.” He especially praised the third episode, dealing with the generational divide felt by older Catholics who regret changes in the church.

“If we [the church] wanted to buy the opportunity to reach 5 million people every week and have these conversations, we couldn’t afford it,” Lucker said. “Let’s continue it, let’s discuss the issues it raises.”

Lucker said he thinks “Nothing Sacred” would be appropriate for high school religion classes and adult faith-sharing groups, to initiate dialogue about church issues.

He rejected the idea that “Nothing Sacred” is anti-Catholic. “I don’t find people offended by it,” he said. “Donohue [William Donohue, head of the Catholic League] makes it sound like he’s speaking for every Catholic in the country, but he’s really just promoting a conservative agenda. It’s not everybody else’s position.”

Rosazza said, “I worked for 10 years in an inner-city parish, and I identify with the struggles there as depicted in the show. Lots of people just don’t know the inner-city reality, but this show captures it very well.”

Rosazza said he never experienced the faith struggles of Fr. Ray, the lead character, but “it’s a guy who’s faithful to his priesthood. It’s a positive image.”

“There is an anti-Catholic bias in the media,” Rosazza said, “but this isn’t an example of it. There’s no anti-Catholic agenda here that I can see.” Rosazza said he’s watched every episode but one.

In addition to the four bishops who agreed to sign the ad, Cardinal Roger Mahony recently had some good things to say about “Nothing Sacred.” At the Catholics in Media annual awards breakfast, Mahony welcomed Kevin Anderson, who plays Fr. Ray, and said the show “encourages dialogue” about the church (see NCR, Nov. 7).

Despite all the Catholic praise, the ratings for “Nothing Sacred” have stayed flat, ranging from a low of 4.4 to a high of 5.1, leaving it consistently last in its time slot (Thursday at 8:00 p.m. EST) and among the lowest-rated shows on the major networks.

While conceding that these numbers are disappointing, an ABC spokesperson told NCR that the network wanted to “give the show a chance.” Preston Padden, president of ABC, said in a network press release that a recent full-page advertisement in national newspapers was a “significant expression of ABC’s support for the show.”

Privately, ABC sources say the network wants the show to survive because it does not wish to appear to have succumbed to the Catholic League’s campaign.

Donohue has charged ABC with an ideological bias for not canceling “Nothing Sacred,” pointing out that shows with better ratings have already been axed. ABC’s spokesperson, however, said the ratings for “Nothing Sacred” were not unusual for an hourlong drama still struggling to build an audience.

Though the decision to buy three more scripts is a “positive sign,” according to the network, it does not mean these episodes will necessarily be produced. “Nothing Sacred” is currently filming the ninth episode of the 13 originally planned, and will continue shooting at least through December until a final decision is made about the fate of the show.

The controversy surrounding “Nothing Sacred” continues to draw interest. National Public Radio recently did a segment on it, as did CNN’s Crossfire.

Many insiders regard the Thursday time slot and not the Catholic League boycott, as “Nothing Sacred’s” biggest enemy. “NBC owns Thursday night,” one observer said, noting that “Nothing Sacred” is not alone in its inability to make a dent against “Friends.”

“ABC has a long-standing problem with developing hourlong dramas, because it has nowhere from them to go,” the observer said, noting that three out of five weeknight 10 p.m. EST slots on ABC’s schedule are filled with news magazines, which draw mediocre ratings but are much cheaper to produce. Observers regard 10 p.m. as the most desirable slot for hourlong dramas.

The network is considering an offer from King Pound Associates, a firm that specializes in placing advertisements in the Catholic press, to place ads promoting “Nothing Sacred” in Catholic newspapers.

National Catholic Reporter, November 14, 1997