Cable Nets Put Holy Spin on Courtship

In recent years, relationships seem to be driven by screen swipes and messages on a mobile device more than anything else. According to a 2014 report by IBIS, the online dating industry makes $2 billion per year, and Barclays projects that matchmaking app Tinder will have 20 million daily users by April.

Still, some people are ditching their smartphones and putting the fate of their love lives in the hands of TV producers instead of algorithms. This year, several cable networks will add a new wrinkle to the trials and tribulations of relationship series: religion.

Earlier this month, WE tv premiered Match Made in Heaven, offering viewers one of the first African-American bachelors on a dating competition series, Shawn Bullard.

“It is a little twist on the traditional dating-house show,” said Marc Juris, WE tv president, who believes the network has a significant faith-based audience. “Everything is loosely organized around the Ten Commandments.”

Juris explains that Bullard’s first meeting with the 24 contestants was set in a garden to signify the Bible’s Garden of Eden. Future episodes will deal with religious themes like temptation, selflessness and charity.

The series’ host, pastor Ken Johnson of Indianapolis (who serves as the NFL Colts’ chaplain), and the bachelor’s mother, Maggie Bullard, are there to help the young man make decisions.

“While it’s expected that the girls will have their own dramatic tension, this adds another new layer,” Juris said. “The question will be: Who has more authority at the end of the day, God or [your] mother?”

Next up for WE tv is Sex Box, which premieres Feb. 27 at 10 p.m. The new series will try to mend couples’ issues with a discussion panel of relationship experts. “What we wanted to do was cover three distinct areas—emotion, physicality and spirituality,” Juris said. Florida pastor Yvonne Capehart will represent the latter to provide “balance,” Juris added.

Going in a more chaste direction is GSN, with the March 26 return of its sophomore series It Takes a Church. The game show has a number of self-proclaimed matchmakers introduce possible suitors to a bachelor or bachelorette in their congregation. From there, the church chooses its top four and the eligible single makes a final decision on whom he or she would like to date from that pool.

GSN reports the first season of It Takes a Church improved the network’s time slot ratings 113% for the target demo of women 18-49 from the year prior.

“We like to call the show the anti-Bachelor,” said Amy Introcaso-Davis, GSN executive VP of programming and development. “You’re not going to find any hot tubs or people slapping each other on our show.”

Instead Church, hosted by Grammy-nominated gospel singer Natalie Grant, focuses on shared values of the contestants.

“We found that there was a lack of programming targeted to the faith-based community,” said Introcaso-Davis. “We had some success with the American Bible Challenge, and we were looking to see if there was anything else would could do to appeal to that demographic.”

Introcaso-Davis says the Church setup may be more appealing than digital dating for some people because “if it’s someone that you know who’s recommending this person, you feel a little safer than going on Tinder.”

Elsewhere on cable, Lifetime is taking a look at the beginning of marriage with new docu-sitcom Kosher Soul, debuting Feb. 25 at 10 p.m. The reality show follows interracial and interfaith couple Miriam Sternoff, a Jewish stylist originally from Seattle, and O’Neal McKnight, a southern African-American comedian, as they try to fuse their cultures together in time for their wedding.

“This idea of blending religions feels very American and something that’s happening in increasing numbers,” said Eli Lehrer, Lifetime senior VP of nonfiction development.

The first few episodes of Kosher Soul feature McKnight’s conversion to Judaism in order to be accepted by his wife-to-be’s mother and Sternoff going in a mivkeh, or purifying bath, to prepare to conceive.

“[Judaism] is a religion that isn’t regularly explored in the unscripted landscape,” said Lehrer. “I’m hoping that giving people a look into that culture that will feel fresh.”