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From 'The Bible' to the Amish, Why Religion Is Hot on Cable

It's not just reality and scripted programming that are incorporating religious themes: GSN has found a hit with its Jeff Foxworthy-hosted game show The American Bible Challenge. The studio-based show, which features contestants competing to win money for charity based on their knowledge of the Bible, gave the network its best viewership figures ever with 1.7 million total viewers for the series premiere and more than 13 million over the first season. (For the second season, which premiered Thursday night, the network launched a 10-week Bible study online.) 

Amy Introcaso-Davis, executive vp programming and development at GSN, actually had heard of the project while at another network but didn't think it was a right fit. After she joined GSN, executive producer Michael Davies brought it to the network, and she sparked to the project. While she admits there is always a fear of advertisers being wary of such programming, Introcaso-Davis was confident it would become a hit because, she says, it filled a TV programming void.

"I have had experience going after audiences that are not necessarily represented on TV, and this seemed like the biggest audience ever not represented on TV," she says. "I think these shows definitely hit an emotional core, and in particular with The Bible and our show, I think they are sort of an antidote to what else is on TV. People are definitely searching for something else because they've told us -- they're watching it."

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However, network execs and producers admit there is an extra layer of sensitivity when developing such shows.

Introcaso-Davis says that GSN specifically looked for a host who has a great deal of knowledge about the Bible and found him in Foxworthy, who participates in Bible studies twice a week.

Adds Nat Geo's Cascio: "It is a category that you have to be careful with because you don't to want to make fun of or denigrate people's beliefs. National Geographic is very aggressive in our fact-checking and research to make sure all of our programs are factually and intellectually accurate, so we make sure we are reflecting the depth of the views and the factual accuracy of the topic."

History's Hoogstra notes that The Bible employed numerous consultants and experts representing all denominations, while Burnett says he also began working with advertisers early in the process (he and Downey have been working on the mini since 2009).

Says Burnett: "It's an enormous responsibility to make a series about the Bible. Before I even pitched it, I wanted to make sure we were taking the right approach."

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Burnett also thinks that, when all is said and done, The Bible will the most-watched program the prolific producer has ever made, since it's likely to be repeated annually every year around the world. And Burnett -- for whom faith is a big part of his and Downey's lives -- hopes that it helps open more people's eyes to the subject matter, even if they don't practice a religion, without forcing it down their throats.

"We've been very clear from the beginning: We didn't want to make series that told people what to think about the Bible or how to feel," he says. "We made it so that people could take from the series whatever they wanted to. Clearly a lot of people are talking about it, which is great."