Several cable networks are putting their faith in spiritual and gospel music-themed shows to reach viewers looking for uplifting and positive television content to help through difficult times.
From new scripted series including streaming service ALLBLK’s Covenant to original movies like Lifetime’s Emmy-nominated Robin Roberts Presents: Mahalia, faith-based shows are finding an audience with viewers who are looking for more spiritual-themed shows in the midst of everyday struggles, including the ongoing pandemic, executives said.
“We want our audience, which has a strong spiritual side, to see the relevance, but what we really want to do is tap into the need for hope and community,” Lifetime executive VP of scripted programming Tonya Lopez said.
Many recent faith-themed shows from cable and streaming services have been unscripted, Bible-focused programs such as History’s 2013 The Bible and 2019’s Jesus: His Life, as well as National Geographic Channel’s 2016 The Story of God with Morgan Freeman. Now, with networks looking for new, diverse content that appeals to both general and niche audiences, faith-based scripted shows are attempting to gain traction on programming lineups.
Executives said creating a successful scripted content series based on religious and spiritual themes can be daunting. Writers must navigate telling, but not necessarily preaching, the Good News and make the content compelling enough to compete against traditional drama shows.
“It is a little hard trying to figure out how faith-based [programming] is going to look and feel in this secular world,” Kay Singleton, creator of ALLBLK’s Covenant, said in August at the service’s Television Critics Association Summer Press Tour session.
Covenant will reimagine classic Bible-themed stories as they might take place in the modern world to show how sacred lessons of faith and love fit into today’s society, according to the streaming service. The show is not overtly religious but brings spiritual themes into a contemporary environment that’s more familiar to today’s viewer, Singleton said.
“It’s not scripture heavy on the surface, but rather welcoming and not polarizing,” she said. “It’ll appeal to all different kinds of crowds.”
Back on the ‘Highway’
Lifetime will look to reboot Highway to Heaven as part of a series of movie specials, VP and head of programming Amy Winter said. A reimagining of the 1984-89 NBC series starring Michael Landon and Victor French, it stars singer/actress Jill Scott as an angel on earth sent to help people through their everyday problems and situations.
Lifetime hopes viewers will be receptive to a faith-based show given the travails many people are going through, particularly with the ongoing pandemic. “Everybody needs something that I think that can lift them up and maybe help them move beyond … being stuck in the past,” Highway to Heaven co-star Barry Watson said during the TCA tour.
Highway to Heaven doesn’t speak specifically to any particular religion or faith, Scott said, but offers spiritual messages to tackle contemporary issues. “It’s for everybody who is looking for light in the dark or … for a reminder that faith still exists, and that the creator — my boss, your boss, our boss — is still very much present,” she said
Industry executives say shows such as OWN’s Greenleaf have helped pave the way for viewers to see the issues surrounding church, religion and faith through the lens of a dramatic, scripted series. Greenleaf creator Craig Wright said the series found an audience, particularly Black women, who wanted to experience the church and faith from a different perspective.
Greenleaf ended its five-year run in 2020 as OWN’s most-watched scripted series. The network is planning to launch a spinoff show based on Greenleaf star Lynn Whitfield’s character Lady Mae, Wright said.
“Spirituality is hard to depict on camera,” he said. “Our intention with Greenleaf was to start a conversation about the black church, and from the way the audience came along, obviously that was a conversation that was waiting to happen.”
In Tune with Music
Programmers have also turned to gospel music-themed originals to deliver powerful notes to viewers. BET Plus has teamed with gospel music icon Kirk Franklin and producer DeVon Franklin to create a new drama series, Kingdom Business, which will follow the life of a gospel singing star determined to guard her family and its many secrets to retain her place on the throne.
Lifetime featured two of the most prominent names in gospel music in Mahalia Jackson and The Clark Sisters as the subjects of original movies that have generated strong viewership and industry accolades.
The Clark Sisters: First Ladies of Gospel debuted in April 2020 to 2.7 million viewers, the most watched Lifetime original movie since 2016, while Robin Roberts Presents: Mahalia — which premiered in April 2021 — was nominated for a 2021 Emmy Award for Outstanding Television Movie.
“Mahalia and Clark Sisters are biopics about women who our audience had heard of but didn’t know their full story,” Lopez said. “Mahalia, Clark Sisters and Highway to Heaven offer hope and positivity in a world that so desperately needs that energy.”
R. Thomas Umstead serves as senior content producer, programming for Multichannel News, Broadcasting + Cable and Next TV. During his more than 30-year career as a print and online journalist, Umstead has written articles on a variety of subjects ranging from TV technology, marketing and sports production to content distribution and development. He has provided expert commentary on television issues and trends for such TV, print, radio and streaming outlets as Fox News, CNBC, the Today show, USA Today, The New York Times and National Public Radio. Umstead has also filmed, produced and edited more than 100 original video interviews, profiles and news reports featuring key cable television executives as well as entertainers and celebrity personalities.
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