Cable Shows Turn to Christian Themes

Several cable networks are looking
to convert viewers with original scripted series,
movies and reality fare featuring Christian
themes and storylines.

From comedies like TV Land’s pastor-themed
comedy Soul Man to BET’s gospel music-tinged
competition series Sunday Best to more ambitious
projects —like History’s upcoming miniseries The
— networks are bringing the Good News to
viewers looking for positive and often faith-affirming
content on television during difficult times.

“The last four or five years haven’t been that easy
in America, and when times are tough and things
are hard for people faith becomes even more important,”
GMC TV president and CEO Charles
Humbard said. “I think there’s even a greater spotlight
on programming that upholds people’s values
today that counterbalances all the negative messaging
out there.”

When most people think of Christian-themed
programming, what comes to mind are the evangelical
services seen on religious networks like
EWTN, Trinity Broadcasting Network, INSP and
The Word Network. But entertainment shows with Christian
themes have littered the small screen for decades:
popular past shows such as family drama Little House on
The Prairie
(NBC, 1974-83), sitcom Amen (NBC, 1986-91)
and dramas Touched by an Angel (CBS, 1994-2003) and,
more recently, Saving Grace (TNT, 2007) all prominently
featured elements of Christian faith.


And such programs appeal to a huge audience base —
75 million Americans describe themselves as active Christians,
according to a recent Simmons Research study.

“If you look across America, more than 80% [of people]
call themselves Christians or people of faith and 48%
are active in the church,” Humbard said. “What’s mainstream
are people that either relate to or live by faith as
a real guidepost in their life, so these shows are actually
mainstream themes, [and] a lot of producers and other
networks are just now discovering how they resonate.”

GMC’s slate of gospel-themed stage plays — which mix
comedy with a serious storyline and, in most cases, an inspirational
ending — has resonated with the network’s
core female viewer, particularly African-American women.
For Richer
or Poorer
nearly 200,000
total viewers on
April 14. That’s
a category high
for the network,
and was the
watched series
among 18-to-49
and 25-to-54-
year-old African-
on cable for the
evening, according
to Nielsen.

Viewers are looking for faith-affirming programming
that isn’t preachy, but embodies positive life values that
aren’t reflected elsewhere on the small screen, Humbard
said. “I think people are getting a little burned out with the
usual [show] formulas where you have unnatural conflict
and the sex and violence that comes with them. I think
people are looking for quality entertainment that makes
them smile or challenges them but does not conflict with
their values. People don’t want to be preached at, but rather
entertained with programming that affirms and upholds
but doesn’t conflict with people’s values.”

Today’s entertainment-based, religious-themed shows
are off ering a more contemporary look at Christian faith
and values, often through the lens of the church and its
pastors, clergymen and parishioners.

“The church is like the hub of the community — there are
funerals, baptisms, teen and marriage counseling [and] day
care — it’s a seven-day-a-week building,” TV Land president
Larry Jones said. “Everybody thinks mostly about that Sunday-
morning session, but the reality is the pastors are there
seven days a week, dealing with a lot of diff erent things.”

TV Land’s The Soul Man, debuting June 20, will try to capture
that reality. It stars Cedric the Entertainer as a former
R&B music star who returns to his Christian roots as pastor
of his father’s church. The Soul Man focuses on the church
as a workplace environment, rather than a house of religion,
Jones said. “The whole idea of that was unique — in
many ways we think about this not necessarily as a churchbased
show but rather a workplace
comedy that happens to
be [in] a church.”

When real-life religious
leaders are spotlighted in
TLC’s Preacher Wives
which looks at the lives of
several Atlanta-based pastors
and their spouses — it’s told
from a lifestyle perspective,
rather than in religious tones.
“Fundamentally our shows
focus on the lifestyles and
not necessarily the faith,”
TLC general manager Amy
Winter said. “I think the faith
is the backbone of the lifestyle
choices that we show throughout the series. I wouldn’t say
we’re so focused on the religion itself; it’s just a piece of
their lifestyle.”

We TV’s Mary Mary gives a behind the scenes look at the
lives of the famed contemporary Gospel sister duo Erica and
Tina Campbell. The Campbell
sisters say that the lives
of faith-based characters
have not been reflected in
mainstream reality shows,
but have appeal to viewers.
We TV renewed the series for
a second season after it averaged
nearly 600,000 viewers
in its freshman run.

“It’s good to see people
be verbal about their
Christian faith … but living
a normal life,” Tina
Campbell said. “You’re not
going to see us in the pulpit
preaching and trying
to perfect folks, but you’ll
see us living a real life and
having challenges and not
be able to cope with it all.”

Some networks are
building shows directly
around the Good Book itself.
History will team with
prolific reality series producer Mark Burnett to produce a
five-hour, five-part series, The Bible.

The series will chronicle the Bible from Genesis to Revelation
and will air sometime in 2013, according to network

History president and general manager Nancy Dubuc
said the Bible is one of the world’s most significant
books and the series will bring its stories “to life for a
new generation.”


With more than three-quarters of Americans identifying
with some form of Christianity, Amy Introcaso-Davis,
executive vice president of programming for GSN, said
Christianity-themed programming is an untapped genre
for cable. Later this year, GSN will introduce The American
Bible Challenge
, a new game show that challenges contestants
on their knowledge of the Bible.

“We see the American Bible Challenge as a authentic, fun
way to reach that audience — it’s very fun and very relatable,”
she said, adding that each episode of the Jeff Foxworthy-
hosted show will feature a gospel choir onstage.

“There’s nothing hokey about it — it’s contemporary, so
I think churches themselves have gone in a different direction,
so the media is going to follow them in some way.”

Introcaso-Davis said she’s not concerned about turning
off atheists or non-Christian religious believers with the series,
although she admits that religious-themed programming
will always be a tad controversial because of the many
divergent beliefs that people hold. “People believe in what
they believe in, but the great thing about this country is people
have the right to believe what they want,” she said. “At
the end of the day [religion] is very mainstream — religion
does touch your life even if you’re not a believer, so it’s natural
that we should be exploring it in all parts of the media.”

R. Thomas Umstead

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.