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The Television Trend: Faith-Based Shows

( [email protected] ) Jun 19, 2004 06:04 PM EDT

The trend these days is faith-based shows and films. According to Reuters, broadcasters have started to allocate more prime-time in producing faith-based shows dealing with God, faith and the afterlife.

Inspired by the soaring success of religion-themed novels like the "Left Behind" series and Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ," channels spawned other shows such as "Joan of Arcadia," the story of a teen-age girl who speaks to God, and "Tru Calling," about a clairvoyant young morgue attendant with the power to "relive" the previous day and help prevent deaths, are coming back for second seasons this fall on CBS and Fox, respectively.

They will join the return of the WB network's veteran drama "7th Heaven," centered on the family of a minister, and Showtime's darkly comic afterlife series "Dead Like Me."

And NBC is launching two new spiritual dramas of its own -- "Medium," starring Patricia Arquette as a suburban housewife who helps solve crimes by communicating with the dead, and "Revelations," an apocalyptic thriller featuring Bill Pullman as a scientist racing to thwart Armageddon.

It's not as big a trend as the TV westerns that galloped over the small screen during the 1960s or the "reality" craze of recent years, but the upcoming batch of faith-oriented series marks a new high point in prime-time piety.

Della Reese, an ordained minister and former gospel singer who starred in the CBS hit "Touched an Angel," sees it as a sign that spirituality has finally become "fashionable."

"People have wanted spiritual entertainment for a long time, but the powers that be said, 'No. Nobody will buy that,"' she told Reuters. "Now it's come to the place where you know there's nothing else going to save you but the grace of God."

Network executives, too, have become believers. In a media landscape of increasingly fragmented viewership, they say the success of religious fare elsewhere in U.S. pop culture is shaping their age-old quest for the Holy Grail of commercial television -- a mass audience.

"We think this is something that's been out there for years and has actually been untapped," NBC Entertainment President Kevin Reilly said. "The world is in turmoil right now, and when it is, you tend to see people going for conspiracy theories, going to apocalyptic stories and spirituality."

He cited the growing popularity of books like the "Left Behind" novels, a 12-part drama about the second coming drawn from the Book of Revelation in the New Testament that has sold more than 60 million copies worldwide.

Yet, Christianity is also the hot topic of prominent bestsellers ranging from Dan Brown's "The Da Vinci Code," a modern thriller steeped in purported secrets about the early Christian church, to Bruce Wilkinson's "The Prayer of Jabez: How to Get God to Bless Your Life."

At the same time, inspirational and religious-themed music has become a growing pop genre in the recording industry.

Jana Riess, the religion book review editor for Publishers Weekly and author of "What Would Buffy Do? The Vampire Slayer as Spiritual Guide," said the notion of a divine approach to TV ratings growth makes sense.

"If they're looking for an untapped market, this is it," she said, noting polls that show most Americans profess a belief in God and nearly half counting themselves as born-again or evangelical Christians.

"Americans are a very religious people, but our popular culture expressions have not always reflected that," she said. "Those same people who read the 'Left Behind' books would also like to see films and television shows that reflect their values and their spiritual principals."

But a godly theme itself is no guarantee of heavenly ratings. NBC's animated comedy "God, the Devil and Bob" angered many Christians and quickly flopped four years ago.

Spirituality in series television also runs counter to decades of prime-time orthodoxy, which has generally consigned overtly religious themes to holiday specials.

Faith had a bigger place in the early days of TV.

The long-running soap opera "The Guiding Light" moved from radio to television in 1952 as a serialized drama centered on a minister and his family, though the show has evolved into one that generates far more heat than light. And a real-life Catholic bishop, the Rev. Fulton J. Sheen, hosted the popular 1950s prime-time show "Life is Worth Living," offering weekly lessons in morality illustrated with chalkboard scribblings.

Religious symbolism and spiritual overtones also abounded on more recent shows as varied as "M*A*S*H," "Picket Fences," "NYPD Blue" and "The Sopranos," said Robert Thompson, director of Syracuse University's Center for the Study of Popular Television. But series TV as a whole has remained largely secular.

Notable exceptions of the 1980s and '90s include "Hell Town," starring Robert Blake as a two-fisted priest, and inspirational but nondenominational dramas, "Touched by an Angel" and "Highway to Heaven."

The latter two, both about angels helping troubled people on Earth, were disparaged by some critics as cloying but were commercial successes that lasted several seasons. "It proves that you can do things that don't have to do with (sex) and people will still buy your product, even if you use the word 'God,"' Reese said.

CBS and Showtime are units of Viacom Inc . Fox is part of the Fox Entertainment Group, owned by News Corp. Ltd. . NBC is a unit of General Electric Corp. . The WB network is a joint venture of Time Warner Inc. and the Tribune Co.