March 22, 2013 8:00am PT by Kimberly Nordyke
From 'The Bible' to the Amish, Why Religion Is Hot on Cable
The cable networks have found religion.
History has a hit with The Bible, Showtime is visiting The Vatican, Lifetime is keeping tabs on Preachers' Daughters, GSN has a Bible-themed game show, and several channels (TLC, Discovery Channel, National Geographic) have sparked to the Amish. And that's just for starters.
"Faith has always been a big part of American culture, and I think the majority of Americans are believers and attend church, so it's not like that is a new trend," says Rob Sharenow, executive vp programming at Lifetime Networks. "But in terms of programming, there have been several things that just seem to be popping right now. It feels kind of natural to me. This is something that a lot of people understand and believe, and they like to see that reflected in the context of movies and TV shows."
Lifetime recently debuted the reality show Preachers' Daughters -- whose second episode saw a 13 percent increase in viewers (1.7 million) and a 39 percent increase among adults 18-49 (936,000 viewers) from last week's premiere -- on the heels of two movies timed to coincide with Black History Month: the original movie Twist of Faith, an interfaith love story starring Toni Braxton, and Pastor Brown, starring Salli Richardson-Whitfield (Eureka) as a young woman who takes over the family church.
"In most cases, we are drawn to the story and material, and the fact that there were faith-based messages and elements [in the two movies] was part of what made the stories interesting and unique," Sharenow says. "Great stories draw audiences, and having faith-based or religious elements is something people are drawn to."
Indeed, the March 3 premiere of miniseries The Bible gave Lifetime's corporate sibling History its best showing in total viewers (13.1 million) and adults 25-54 (4.6 million) since last summer's juggernaut mini Hatfields & McCoys, ranking as the year's top entertainment program on cable this year. The second episode also performed big, with 10.9 million total viewers and 4.2 million in the demo (the mini concludes on Easter Sunday, March 31).
Neither History executive vp development and programming Dirk Hoogstra nor Mark Burnett, who created and executive produced the mini with wife Roma Downey, was surprised it has become such a hit.
"We had a really good feeling that it would do big numbers for us because we've done religious specials and documentary programs and events in the past, and they tend to do really well for us," Hoogstra says. "We knew the subject area [was of interest to] our viewers and beyond."
When planning the marketing, there was a concerted effort to reach "as broad an audience as possible," Hoogstra adds, arguing that the stories have resonance even with nonbelievers and also will continue to resonate for years to come.
For National Geographic Channel, too, shows centering on religious topics and themes are nothing new, says executive vp programming Michael Cascio.
"I find the idea of some kind of trend amusing because we've been doing it for so long," he says.
Cascio cites as examples such programs as 2006's The Gospel of Judas through the upcoming special Jesus: Rise to Power, which airs at 8 p.m. March 28 after having been "in the works for many years."
"These are topics that resonate for our audience and have been resonating for a number of years," he says. "It resonates because people either find it aspirational and want to live like that, or they don't but find it fascinating to see how other people live, and that's what good, factual programming does."
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).
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."
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."
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."