e-mail us
With religion, TV misses the big picture

Against the backdrop of what many are calling a new “Great Awakening” in America -- a renewed spiritual hunger, perhaps fueled by millennial stirrings, perhaps by the more prosaic fact that baby boomers are reaching the stage of life where they’re picking out burial plots -- it’s probably not surprising that TV is infatuated with religion.

The most obvious measure of this interest is the seven prime-time series that popped up in fall 1997 featuring either angels or ministers, with more in development for 1998. But that’s by no means the extent of it.

August will witness the launch of a seventh broadcast network, PaxNet, which will compete with the majors -- ABC, NBC, CBS and Fox -- as well as the other emerging networks, UPN and WB. PaxNet will feature family-oriented drama, faith-and-values talk shows, specials from “Focus on the Family,” and Christian mood music at night.

And on cable, religion is hotter than even cooking or country music. The four major religiously themed cable networks -- Mother Angelica’s Eternal Word Television Network, Odyssey, the Trinity Broadcasting Network and The Inspirational Network -- are growing, while several other would-be networks are on the drawing board.

What’s striking amid all this activity is the disconnect between what’s on TV and what’s in the culture. Scholars of religion tell us Americans these days are spiritual seekers -- “tourists with respect to the sacred,” in one famous formulation. We sample, we mix and match -- it’s not unusual for an American to pray the rosary, wear a healing crystal, read Deepak Chopra and practice Buddhist chant.

Moreover, America’s questers come in all theological shapes and sizes. There are those who doubt, those who dissent and those who merely dabble, in addition to the “true believers.”

But with a handful of notable exceptions, the new burst of TV religion would give but faint indication of this diversity. Most programming falls within a fairly narrow theological band, ranging from feel-good Christian piety in prime time to the sharply conservative brand of Christianity found on cable.

Understanding why that’s the case raises a complicated set of economic and theological questions, but at bottom it reduces to two fundamentals: dollars and devotion. Shows need viewers, and cable outlets need supporters. In both cases, conservative Christians have largely beaten other religious constituencies to the punch.

Ratings juggernaut

In the fall of 1994, CBS debuted a little-heralded new hourlong drama, “Touched By An Angel.” Widely seen in the industry as a long shot, the show -- which features angels who lend assistance to people in difficulty -- struggled in the ratings, but then found a home on Saturday night alongside “Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman” and won a sufficient following to get renewed. Later, it made the transition to TV’s most-viewed night, Sunday, and became a ratings juggernaut, regularly attracting an audience of almost 18 million.

“The prevailing wisdom had been that God and good ratings were incompatible,” said Paulist Fr. Ellwood Kieser, head of Paulist Productions in Pacific Palisades, Calif. “ ‘Touched By An Angel’ changed all that.”

Given the lure of the numbers generated by “Touched By An Angel,” networks scrambled to put together shows with religious and/or spiritual themes and green-lighted such programs already in development. Some, like ABC’s “Teen Angel” and CBS’s “The Promised Land,” a “Touched” spinoff, featured angels; others, including Warner Brothers’ “7th Heaven,” ABC’s “Soul Man” and “Nothing Sacred,” and UPN’s “Good News” focused on Christian ministers.

Many have subsequently struggled to find an audience. “Teen Angel” has already been canceled, “Nothing Sacred” is on the ropes, and rumors are beginning to circulate that “Soul Man” may be next. Of the current crop, only “The Promised Land” and “7th Heaven” look like sure ratings winners.

Nevertheless, more spirituality is on the way for prime time. WB is looking at developing a pilot for next fall called “The Confessor.” The premise is that an avenging angel takes off during some heavenly wars and descends to earth to help out people in need. Fox is developing “Brimstone,” a drama about a tortured cop named Ezekiel Stone dispatched by the devil to capture escapees from hell.

In addition, rumors of other prime-time possibilities with religious themes -- both dramas and sitcoms -- are making the rounds in Hollywood. Though rumors of new shows always float this time of year, the fact that so many of them have spiritual overtones is another indication of the new zeitgeist.

In terms of theological orientation, most of these shows are hard to pin down. “Soul Man,” for example, is almost theologically mute, using religion only as set dressing for a fairly conventional family-oriented situation comedy -- sort of “Cosby” with a Roman collar.

“Touched By An Angel,” however, has a clear Christian thrust. God is real, angels surround us, and simple Christian faith wins the day. And because of its massive audience, “Touched” is by far the most influential network treatment of religion.

Christian ambience

The show is produced by Martha Williamson, a Christian evangelical who called the drama “the gospel according to Martha” during a chat with Pat Robertson on the “700 Club” when “Touched” first aired. Williamson wanted to rally support among Robertson’s constituency to keep “Touched” going, and they responded in droves.

The Christian ambience about “Touched” is unmistakable. During a “60 Minutes” segment about the show last year, the camera panned the table during a writer’s meeting, showing Bibles scattered alongside the legal pads and scripts. Della Reese, one of the stars, is a Baptist minister in Los Angeles in her spare time.

Williamson, along with people like Ken Wales, is part of a great “coming out” of Christians in Hollywood. Wales was the driving force behind “Christy,” another 1994 CBS drama that, like “Touched,” had strong support among evangelicals, though it faltered in the ratings.

Williamson used to write for Carol Burnett and Joan Rivers; Wales was a vice-president at Disney. Both now find, in the new religion-friendly Hollywood clime, that they can talk openly about their faith and even make shows that reflect it.

But if “Touched By An Angel” is the “gospel according to Martha,” many critics would also call it “gospel lite.” Some detractors, among them many Christian conservatives, say the angel motif is really more New Age than Christian; progressives fault the show for depicting a pietistic faith free of social implications.

Paulist Kieser, who acknowledged finding “Touched” to be “preachy, soft and sudsy,” nevertheless believes that it has “a pretty good fix on the gospel. The message is God’s unconditional love for humanity,” he said, arguing that Williamson “goes about as far as she thinks she can in prime time.”

Whatever one makes of it, the ratings gained by “Touched By An Angel” means that it sets the tone for most religiously themed content on TV. Whether you’re looking at “7th Heaven” or “Promised Land,” prime-time religion is most often pitched broadly, styled as “uplifting” rather than critical -- and clearly crafted not to challenge the basic religious assumptions of its core audience, moderate to conservative Christians.

In that context, “Nothing Sacred” stands out as remarkable, according to most critics, for its willingness to be specific and to wrestle with doubt, dissent and failure.

“ ‘Nothing Sacred’ goes against the traditional sense of trying to attract a mass audience,” said Henry Herx, head of the Office for Film and Broadcasting for the U.S. bishops’ conference. “The media typically look at religion in the most inclusive way possible.”

Conventional wisdom

In bucking that conventional wisdom, “Sacred” has struggled to find an audience, consistently finishing near the bottom of the 100-plus prime-time network programs. People connected to the show lay part of the blame at the feet of ABC, which has moved “Sacred” around, hesitated about giving it a late-evening time slot and pulled it off the air for the entire month of February.

But the show’s critical edge and progressive theological orientation are admittedly not the normal network fare, and most observers believe that’s at least part of the problem. Within the last two weeks, ABC canceled production of the last two episodes of “Nothing Sacred,” a move widely seen as the beginning of the end.

Meanwhile, the feel-good spirit of most broadcast religion marches on with the August launch of PaxNet. Its impresario is Lowell “Bud” Paxson, founder of the Home Shopping Network and a TV mogul whose success has come largely from the world of infomercials. Paxson told NCR that the new network is an example of how his talent for TV is being “used by the Lord.”

Initially Hollywood scoffed at Paxon’s announcement that he would build a network, but that laughter has largely died out as he’s bought his way into 80 percent of the country’s broadcast markets. Paxson now owns stations in the country’s top 20 markets, 45 of the top 50, and 73 in all (though some still await construction or regulatory clearance).

Given the Federal Communications Commission’s “must carry” rule, which forces cable operators to carry local broadcast stations, PaxNet will reach the vast majority of TV households in the country from Day 1. Currently Paxson’s stations are carrying infomercials during the day and Christian music at night.

The network will rely on “family-oriented programming,” for the most part, to spread its message. “There won’t be any pulpit kind of activity,” Paxson said. “Jesus only gave one sermon. The rest of the time he told stories.”

Paxson said one overriding question will guide programming decisions at the network: “If He’s going to be watching, what would He want to watch?”

To start with, “He” would be watching “Touched By An Angel,” if the figures mean anything -- the network shelled out around $950,000 per episode for more than 100 episodes. PaxNet will also air “Promised Land,” as well as older material such as “Eight is Enough” and “Life Goes On.” “Christy,” the short-lived CBS drama based on a book long treasured in Christian evangelical circles, is also part of the lineup.

The network has agreed to air programs produced by James Dobson’s Focus on the Family, a conservative Christian group that has helped lead the anti-Disney boycott. Paxson said that around Easter he’ll air some “Bible-story movies and miniseries.” At night, PaxNet will feature “Worship,” a program in which Bible verses are scrolled across the screen, set to music and scenes from nature.

Spokesperons caution that PaxNet’s programming schedule is “not set in stone.” The overall goal, they say, is to generate “good feelings and good will. We want a very large, broad audience.”

At the same time, a spokesperson said, Paxson is a “believer, very strong in his Christian values.” The network will reflect that streak of Christian piety, but try not to be “in your face” about it.

‘In your face’

If “in your face” Christianity is what you want, you need cable. Religious cable is dominated by four national networks: Mother Angelica’s Eternal Word Television Network, carried by cable systems that reach over 40 million households; the Trinity Broadcasting Network, based in Tustin, Calif., that reaches 35 million homes; Odyssey, the interfaith cable system based in New York, 30 million; and the Inspirational Network, out of Charlotte, N.C., now in 11.6 million.

Just because a network is “in” a certain number of homes, however, doesn’t mean anybody actually watches it. Many programs on religious networks are unrated; industry observers say the most-viewed offerings probably attract audiences of less than a million. But however small, those audiences can be quite devoted.

Of the four majors, three -- EWTN, TBN and Inspirational -- don’t charge anything for local cable operators to carry their content, relying upon income from supporters. And though there are important differences, all three fall solidly on the conservative end of the religious spectrum.

Trinity, which describes its offerings as “positive Christian programming,” is best known for “Praise the Lord,” a sort of Christian variety show, with pastors, musicians, movie stars and athletes performing and talking about their faith. The network also owns and operates Trinity Music City in Nashville, Tenn., a performance center that blends Christian evangelism and country music. On-air fund drives provide much of Trinity’s revenue.

The Inspirational Network shows a mix of Christian-themed programming. It sells air time to approximately 75 different churches and ministries, and with few exceptions, programs stress personal witness and mix evangelism with entertainment. The network also offers CCM-TV, a sort of MTV for Christian music videos, and “Branson Jam,” a country music showcase.

EWTN bills itself as a global Catholic network and can back up that claim with the fact that it uploads its content to satellites that reach Asia, Europe and Latin America in addition to the United States and Canada. Its flagship program is “Mother Angelica Live,” which airs at 8 p.m. EST every Tuesday and Wednesday and features the Poor Clare nun’s conservative views on issues both within and outside the Catholic church.

In this milieu, Odyssey stands out as the great exception to the Christian right’s domination of cable. The network is operated by an interfaith consortium of 64 different faith groups, bringing together Catholics, Protestants, Jews and Orthodox Christians. The programming lineup is diverse, ranging from gospel-flavored country music to Sunday Mass from Scranton, Pa.


Odyssey airs programs produced by each of its member churches; it will broadcast “The Field Afar” this spring, for example, a 13-part series on Maryknoll’s foreign missions. The network’s prime-time lineup is dominated by reruns of family-oriented dramas, such as “Our House,” and G-rated movies.

Odyssey has a policy that forbids “programming that attacks or maligns any religious group,” and it also does not engage in on-air solicitation of funds. As a result, it’s forced to depend upon the same business model that mainstream cable networks such as ESPN employ: charges for content to cable systems and advertising sales.

To subscribers, it may seem that cable can offer an infinite variety, so there should be room for all these channels -- why not just add another couple of numbers at the upper end of the lineup? The truth, however, is that the much-prophesied 500-channel cable universe is yet to arrive; today, cable operators possess extremely limited bandwidth, meaning the vast majority have about 55 to 85 channels to assign. They must make careful choices, therefore, about what to carry and what to turn down.

As a result, the four religious networks engage in what one source called “trench warfare,” slugging it out city by city, cable system by cable system, fighting for the one or two slots a system is usually willing to make available. In “pitch meetings,” where network representatives make the case for their channel, they pull out all the stops -- demographic, economic, theological and even political -- to beat out the competition.

“They’ll attack each other,” said one operator who spoke to NCR on the condition he not be identified. “They’ll say that one channel doesn’t have enough hard religion or that another is too far-out,” he said.

In this contest, each channel has certain advantages -- Odyssey can claim to appeal to a wider audience, but EWTN and TBN can claim a fiercely loyal group of viewers willing to make their preferences known.

The cable operator who spoke to NCR said that his system made the decision to add EWTN after a “well-orchestrated” campaign of letters and phone calls demanding the network. “They weren’t going away,” he said. “It was clear that our life was going to be pretty difficult unless we added EWTN to our lineup.”

Aside from the winnowing effect of such competition, why isn’t there more diversity on TV? On the network side, it’s not difficult to answer -- programming must attract a mass audience and so the least common denominator will ordinarily prevail. In that respect, prime-time TV offers generic religion the same way it offers generic families and generic workplaces.

There’s even a name for all this: “least offensive programming,” or “LOP,” which emerged in the 1970s as a network tactic to draw as wide an audience as possible by making shows intentionally inoffensive and inclusive.

There’s also the simple fact that pious, unchallenging TV is easier on the viewer. “Black and white stuff is easier to take,” Kieser said. “Ambivalence is harder to process. In ‘Nothing Sacred,’ Fr. Ray screws up, he uses bad judgment. That’s harder to deal with than angels who never sin. It’s much more anxiety-ridden.”

Finally, despite some criticism of “Touched By An Angel” by the Christian right, the evangelical community rallied around the show when it was struggling and had an impact on the ratings in a way that progressives have so far not done for “Nothing Sacred.”

“The show was saved by people who go to church, many of whom didn’t even really watch TV as a rule,” said Nancy Udell, a PaxNet spokesperson.

Privately, network sources say conservative Christians are much more likely to support a show with a religious theme since they tend to spurn programs like “NYPD Blue” or “Friends.” Progressive believers, on the other hand, represent a more diffuse audience, in some ways more likely to tap into one of those “secular” shows as something with an explicitly religious flavor.

On the cable side, the home of niche programming, it may seem at first blush that there should be room for everyone. But two theological instincts help the Christian right succeed where others falter. The first is a rejection of secular media, leading them to feel much more enthusiastic about creating a subculture of religious programming.

“A ‘Church in the Modern World’ type of person looks for elements in the culture to affirm, to be comfortable with,” said Odyssey’s interim president, Fr. Bob Bonnot. “Those who see the world as corrupt and want to flee it are more likely to create enclaves.”

“Conservatives are much more likely to be enthusiastic about creating their own TV outlets, projecting their own messages,” said Wade Clark Roof of the University of California at Santa Barbara, who has studied religion and the media. “Liberals will probably find something to like in what’s already out there.”

The second instinct is a belief in the need to evangelize, a venture that for liberal Christians committed to ecumenism often seems, well, unseemly. “Liberals are less likely to see the need to talk about God on television,” said Margaret Miles at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, Calif.

Making converts

Indeed, progressive Christians have worked hard to develop theologies in which members of other faith traditions and those with no explicit faith are still understood as part of God’s family. In that light, trying to make converts may seem not just a low priority, but a backward step.

Conservatives see things differently. “When you draw a harder line around the truth, it seems much more important to you to get people on the right side of that line,” Kieser said. “So you put your resources into proselytizing people.”

Miles, who studies religious imagery in film, said the liberal impulse would more likely be to “give the money to the poor or do something else perceived to have more direct social benefits.” Money spent on TV, she says, would strike many progressive Christians as a “waste of resources.”

Cable is an extraordinarily costly undertaking -- Odyssey told NCR that its annual budget is around $25 million; in 1992, EWTN told Newsday it took in that amount from donors each year. According to industry sources, time on a single satellite can cost as much as $80,000 to $100,000 per month. So, to some extent, the ability to get on cable turns on the ability to raise money.

By most accounts, the Christian right is better at raising this kind of money. For one thing, conservative causes generally have access to more money than liberal ones, especially if one of the causes being preserved is financial privilege.

“The right wing, both politically and religiously, is closer to the centers of power in this country and, hence, in a better position to raise money,” Miles said.

Moreover, Christian conservatives seem to have more chutzpah about asking for dollars over the air. “I would never go on the tube to raise money for my own programs,” Kieser said. “It rubs against my Catholic instincts about giving people the gospel without strings.”

On EWTN, however, no such reservations are apparent, as Mother Angelica reminds viewers almost every night to put the network “between your gas and electric bill.” TBN also conducts on-air fund drives.

Thus, the combination of a theological commitment to proselytize and access to the resources to pull it off have given the Christian right a near-monopoly on religion on cable.

That doesn’t mean that everyone sympathetic to the ends for which Christian cable strives necessarily endorses its means. Paxson, for example, told NCR that he thinks most Christian television today is “kind of sad.”

His Utmost

“You have to ask, is it our highest for His Utmost?” Paxson said. “If you come to an honest conclusion, the answer would be no. If Jesus were in control, he wouldn’t do it this way.”

Why not? “They don’t do it in such a way as to get ratings,” he said. “That means they have to pay for time, and that in turn means they have to raise money. I think the way they do it is fairly unbiblical, because they don’t present tithing in a proper way, they’re always asking for more,” he said.

In fact, Paxson said that most Christian networks seem to want TV to do something for which it’s ill-equipped. “TV can’t be much more than a planter of the seed,” Paxson said. “It can’t cultivate faith. The church has to do that. TV doesn’t get you deeply rooted in your faith.

“Some of them [Christian channels] almost want to substitute for the church, but it’s impossible. Sermons and preaching make bad TV, and let’s face it, God our heavenly father would be the best programmer around.”

Some Catholics are also dissatisfied with what’s out there. Retired Archbishop Philip Hannan has been building a TV presence for nine years from his base at WLAE-TV in New Orleans, where he produces and cohosts “Focus,” a news magazine distributed to Catholic media outlets across the country. Hannan is wrapping up a documentary on the pope’s visit to Cuba.

Hannan sees this work as the “seminal stage” of a new national Catholic cable network, distributed via satellite, that will feature news and entertainment along with “inspirational” content. He’s aiming at the 18 to 30 age group and thinks he’ll be ready to go national by the end of 1998.

Of Mother Angelica, Hannan said, “God bless her. Her program will continue, no doubt about it, but it’s strictly one kind of religion. We’ll be much more broad.”

A similar effort is underway at St. Paul’s Parish in Lessburg, Fla., which has aspirations to build what it’s calling the “Catholic Community Television Network.” The parish wants to build a state-of-the-art TV studio, then beam programming to a satellite for distribution around the country and, perhaps, the world. Fr. John Giel, the pastor, says the parish is at the stage of “looking for corporations and individuals to support us.”

The idea is to present the Catholic faith as it’s really lived, in communities that are “vital and alive.” As Giel put it, the goal is to show “we’re doing rather than we’re dying.”

Does it matter?

Giel is careful not to knock potential competitor EWTN, saying only that the “full range of what it is to be Catholic is not represented” on existing cable networks. “For most of us, we find what it means to be a person of faith in a community, not in a monastery,” Giel said.

Perhaps Hannan or Giel or both will succeed. But in the end, is there anything to be regretted about the lack of diversity in TV religion? Does it really matter?

GTU’s Miles thinks so. “TV has essentially abdicated its educative function,” she said. “We need to know more about religious differences in America, about one another’s experiences and deepest beliefs. But we don’t get that, we get the Christian right.”

To be fair, claims that the right has a stranglehold on TV’s religious imagery are undoubtedly overblown. Even setting aside “Nothing Sacred,” the prime-time trend really seems to be in the direction of “spirituality” as opposed to religion per se; shows about renegade angels, for example, or demonic bounty hunters hardly seem drawn from a Christian Coalition playbook.

Even more basically, the networks will offer what sells, and if next year heresy is hot, don’t be surprised to find “The Manichean Files” on Fox.

But it’s also true that when prime-time programmers need to present “religion,” they generally serve up an uncritical version of conservative, Protestant Christianity. To some extent, that’s because evangelicals are a growing presence in Hollywood. Basically, it’s because producers know that conservative Christians will rally around such shows in ways other believers just won’t.

On cable, religious programming is dominated by networks who, buoyed by loyal followers willing to write checks, don’t feel constrained by the good manners of prime time. Here, the kind of Christianity that has prospered is aggressive, sometimes angry and definitely short on sympathy for what Mother Angelica once derided as the “liberal church” -- referring less to an institution than to a body of believers who don’t share her vision.

Perhaps a culture that relies on TV to mediate meaning gets just what it deserves. But spiritual seekers who don’t respond to soft-focus piety in prime time or to the right-wing critique of church and world on cable probably can’t help feeling they’re getting less.

National Catholic Reporter, March 20, 1998