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A Different Reality for Religious TV

Some Christian television is facing a new kind of reality. To attract new, especially younger viewers, it's sticking a toe into a genre that might seem antithetical to the moral underpinnings of these networks: reality television.

On network reality shows, contestants lie, cheat and connive. On Christian TV, they don't. But, like network reality shows, the religious versions draw a crowd of viewers that cable operators want.

"We do skew older and want to reach the younger generation," says TBN Vice President of Administration Paul Crouch Jr.

Christian-television executives know that voting enemies off an island is not the way to go, so they're reinventing the genre for their audiences. The most common approach is a show like C.A.T.S.
(for Christian Artists Talent Search) on the INSP network, a musical competition aimed at the American Idol
audience but in tone more similar to the original version of Star Search
than the current glitzier incarnations.

There are, however, several adventurous reality series. FamilyNet's TruthQuest: California
followed a group of teenagers on a mind-opening journey that included spending the day at the beach with a "surfing ministry," meeting Gothic "vampires" in a coffeehouse near Haight-Asbury, refurbishing homes in the heat of the San Bernardino valley, and hiking in Yosemite National Park.

TBN's Travel the Road
tracked a couple of photogenic young missionaries as they traveled through 25 countries from Laos to Ethiopia, encountering everything from lions and leeches to malaria to rock-throwing locals and Hindu militants.

Crouch says Travel
has averaged 400,000 to 500,000 households per episode, far more than TBN's average programs.

"Those missionaries are 'survivors' in a very real sense," says Rod Payne, president of Texas-based Christian Family Network, who is moderating a reality seminar at the NRB show this week.

"As long as people dig these reality shows, there are viewers out there to be had," says Ron Ingram, director of television production for FamilyNet, owned and operated by the North American Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention and one of the few religious networks to sell ad time. (Most rely on donations raised by televangelists.) "TruthQuest
has created quite a buzz."

But is it right for religious TV? "I believe there is a place for reality shows on Christian television," Ingram says.

Both shows were birthed inadvertently. TruthQuest
came about when FamilyNet was invited to tag along on a trip for kids. Originally developed as a writing project for them, it was funded in part by a savvy company called Lifeway, which sells study guides and Bibles under the TruthQuest line and saw a branding opportunity.

TBN first saw Travel the Road
only after the missionaries returned from their journey and cut a promo piece its producers meant to shop. (Crouch says, if TBN had thought of a show like that, its lawyers would have nixed the idea.)

Both cost more than the average "preaching head" show but very little compared with secular television. TruthQuest
cost $30,000 to $40,000 per episode. TBN merely bought the creators of Travel
an editing system and hardware and provided some money for editing.

Reality came to religious TV because of technology: the advent of cheaper editing systems and cheap, small cameras. "To even go on location at all was very expensive just a few years ago," Ingram says. While this doesn't guarantee compelling television, he adds, it at least provides opportunities and dismantles old barriers. "Christian television has to take advantage of that trend."

In fact, while Travel
makes sure to stay "on message" with an emphasis on praying and proselytizing, the editors used technology to enhance the drama. A "magic-bullet filter" was used to make the video of a scene of 10,000 people in a tent witnessing appear to have been shot on film. A scene of lions stalking the missionaries through the jungle was made to look grainier in the edit room.

Payne would love to see an adaptation of The Apprentice
(in the Christian version, no one would be fired, and the boss wouldn't be much like Donald Trump)
and a show about farmers and ranchers working the land. The big question, he says, is "how much edginess can these shows afford? It's something we have to wrestle with."

Ingram inherited the teens for TruthQuest
and says the group was a bit "squeaky clean." Most were from middle-class families of church leaders mostly from the South. "We put them in situations where they'd have to move beyond the pat answers they know," he says, such as when the "vampires" started drawing blood from each other in the coffeehouse. "Our kids had never seen anything like that before. We wanted to expose them to the rest of the world to see how their faith holds up."

Still, if he gets to do another series, perhaps TruthQuest: NYC, he hopes to select a diverse bunch, including students from different faiths. "Would my higher-ups and audience dig that? It would be better television. It would certainly be a litmus test. I think we could be successful."

Ultimately, even if these shows are successful, they'll never be more than a small piece of the pie for Christian television. "These networks have gotten somewhere with a particular formula, and I would not expect a dramatic shift," says FamilyNet Director of Affiliate Relations Tom Snethen. "A couple of reality-based shows won't tilt the seesaw as to what these networks really are."

Sounds exactly like what they said a couple of years ago at ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox.