From 'The Bible' to the Amish, Why Religion Is Hot on Cable
For TLC, the idea is that the people and their stories come first, and whatever beliefs they have are just part of the stories they tell, so spirituality has long been a part -- but not the focus -- of some of its programming, such as Breaking Amish, Sister Wives and even 19 Kids and Counting.
"What we really try to do is personal stories and personal journeys, and I think that religion or faith or spirituality can sometimes be the underpinnings," says Amy Winter, general manager of TLC. "I don't feel like our shows are about religion; it's a backbone to who they are."
The network is one of several, along with National Geographic (Amish Out of Order) and TLC corporate sibling Discovery Channel (Amish Mafia), that air Amish-centric series. Breaking Amish follows four Amish people and one Mennonite as they leave the horses and buggies behind for New York's taxis and subways in an effort to decide whether to remain with their communities or leave -- and face the consequence of being shunned by those closest to them.
Winter says that viewers have sparked to the show because "it's fascinating to follow these five men and women sort of having their eyes opened to the world. … Spirituality is a journey for a lot of people. There are times in people's lives where they dial up their faith and times where their faith is called into question. Watching and learning through other people's journey how they live their lives and beliefs is interesting to follow and just kind of live through."
Producer Larry Thompson was among those at the forefront of the trend: His movie Amish Grace, starring Kimberly Williams-Paisley, broke ratings records for Lifetime Movie Network when it premiered in March 2010, becoming the channel's most-watched original movie ever among total viewers (4 million) and several demos, including women 18 and older (2.8 million) and women 25-54 (1.2 million).
Thompson says he isn't surprised that faith-themed shows are getting big ratings.
"It doesn't surprise me that The Bible is a genuine hit," he says. "Nothing in Hollywood will make you see the light faster than a hit. And that's 'light' with a capital 'L.' "
Thompson thinks Amish Grace and The Bible, among others, have shown that viewers will respond to programming with religious themes and hopes that any hesitance among TV programmers to develop such shows is diminishing.
"The audience is there, and with success, hopefully other networks and studios will embrace it as a genre," he adds. "I'm so pleased about it. I personally love making movies that lift the human spirit."
Another scripted effort in the works is Showtime's The Vatican, a drama pilot written by Paul Attanasio (House). The contemporary thriller -- which incorporates spirituality, power and politics -- is set against the modern-day political machinations within the Catholic Church and aims to explore the relationships and rivalries in addition to the mysteries and miracles behind the institution. The project, starring Kyle Chandler, couldn't be more timely with the real-life events that are transpiring at the Vatican.
"I think that possibly there was [previously] a sense that the subject matter of faith-based shows was too charged or too controversial for advertiser-based TV," Attanasio says. "But what people are discovering is that viewers can distinguish entertainment from real life. Religion is of great interest to everyone, and a key driver of political and personal life worldwide. Maybe the curse came off it somehow that people would stay away" from religious-themed programming.
Meanwhile, USA is set to debut The Moment -- an inspirational/aspiration series being referred to as "inspi-reality" that centers on such themes as grace and redemption -- on April 11. The series, which gives people a second chance at their dream job, is hosted by Kurt Warner, who credits in part his own faith to his own second chance at a dream career (going from grocery store stocker to Super Bowl MVP).