God Is for Real(ity)

Faith-based reality programming focusing on the lives of actual pastors, high-profi le gospel singers and members of religious families is successfully reaching a viewing congregation of mostly young believers and nonbelievers.

Shows like Oxygen’s Preachers of L.A., which focuses on the personal lives of five West Coast pastors, and WE tv’s Mary, Mary, which profiles the lives of the Grammy-winning gospel duo, have recently set ratings records for their respective networks. Preachers finished as Oxygen’s most-watched freshman series ever this past fall, drawing more than 1 million viewers, while Mary, Mary drew nearly 1 million viewers in its Feb. 27 season-three premiere episode, up 62% from its season-two debut.

Other shows, such as Lifetime’s Preachers’ Daughters, Bravo’s Thicker Than Water: The Tankards and BET’s The Sheards are shining a light on high-profi le personalities in the faith-based community with a mission to both entertain and to enlighten and expound on faith-based principles to its audience. But the genre is not without its detractors: some in the faith-based community say that these shows focus more on glitz and glamour and not enough on the Gospel.

“It doesn’t help the overall cause [of faith-based programming] when other networks focus on the salacious side of important faith personalities,” Charley Humbard, CEO of faith-themed network UP, said.

Reality TV producer/entrepreneur Lemuel Plummer, executive producer of Preachers of L.A. and The Sheards, spoke to Multichannel News programming editor R. Thomas Umstead about the burgeoning faith-based reality genre and its appeal to viewers — particularly young 18-to-34-year-olds. The 27-yearold president and CEO of TV production company L Plummer Media also said these reality shows could serve as the Christian community’s tool to reach younger viewers who want to see authentic portrayals of faith-based leaders. Plummer also responds to the genre’s detractors in a wide-ranging interview, an edited transcript of which follows.

MCN: What is the appeal of faith-based reality programming?

Lemuel Plummer: People look at these nonscripted shows like Preachers of L.A., The Sheards, and Mary, Mary as a way to learn about the Bible and its teachings, but also to see how these spiritually connected people live. They are so used to seeing how these people preach, but we’re trying to show these people preaching their lifestyles outside of the Bible. I think people want to be able to learn from a different perspective. They see the preacher delivering the message and they see the singer singing about the Gospel and connecting from a spiritual perspective, but we felt people get more impacted when they see how these people live. They struggle and have struggles just like us, but they handle things differently.

MCN: Can you get the message of Christian faith through to younger viewers more quickly through a reality series than through a more Scripture-based program like The Bible or movies like Son of God or Noah?

LP: Absolutely. Young people want to see real; they want to see the authenticity of these people. The younger generation can relate and appreciate shows like this because we relate to reality shows. Our parents grew up in an era where they watched The Cosby Show and other scripted sitcoms, but we’re in a different era and time.

I recently spoke at Hampton University and heard from the students there about how these reality shows made them think about their relationship with God and how they want to continue that. Young people are in an era where we get so many things happening so fast from Instagram, Twitter and Facebook that our attention spans are so short. If you can attract an audience that will sit down, watch a show and learn and relate to it, then you’ve done your job.

A lot of young people feel that they can’t go to church because they personally have made mistakes and the church is so religious that young people get afraid and are not excited about going. But now, you have a show like Preachers of L.A. that features cool preachers who have real issues and yet their ministries are growing. Hopefully we will continue to win people to Christ and get them to have a better relationship with God. Reality programming is going to be a tool to get young people to come into the church and worship.

MCN: Some in the Christian community have criticized the genre for being too flashy and highlighting the trappings of the secular world more than uplifting Christian values. How do you respond to the criticism?

LP: We do get mixed reviews mostly from older viewers, but when they actually watch the show, most tend to appreciate it. We do have ministry moments. It’s not all about the bling and the flash, that’s a small part of the story. But when you watch the whole thing and get the full context of the show, these stories are relatable.

MCN: Do you expect to see more faith-based reality shows come down the pike in the near future?

LP: Yes I do. I’ve met with several networks, including the big broadcast networks who are looking for faithbased shows because it works from a ratings perspective. The good thing about the faith-based audience is that it’s a proven audience.

It will be interesting to see what happens in the faithbased world. Reality is new territory for the faith-based community; they’re not used to it. It will be interesting to see how the Christian-based networks will respond because I believe that they will have to look at reality content to be able to exist and reach young people. For young people this is like our new church.

Content and digital media — whether it’s watching services online, or listening to podcasts — are what you people are into. The church that they go to will be in part shows like Preachers of L.A. and The Sheards. This generation is all about content, content, content — unfortunately we don’t like to go to service and sit there and watch the preacher for three hours.

We like to be on Facebook and see a great message. It will be interesting to see in the next few years, when it comes to content, how church organizations operate to get young people to be a part of the church community.

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.