TV Walks With Jesus

With Easter fast approaching, no one is hotter in the entertainment zeitgeist than Jesus Christ.

“Christ is trending,” said Jennifer Salke, president of NBC Entertainment, which will soon go into production for its 10-part series, AD: Beyond the Bible, a spinoff of History’s popular 2013 miniseries The Bible.

Indeed, everywhere you turn on the big screen or small screen, Jesus — along with a host of other popular biblical figures — have become the new superheroes for networks and movie studios.

History, coming off of its record-setting The Bible, is considering a scripted series in the faith-based genre. Cable network UP, formerly Gospel Music Channel (GMC), later this month will debut Mel Gibson’s 2004 epic film The Passion of the Christ on commercial-free television for the first time — part of a run-up to Easter featuring 123 hours of religious-themed content.

Scripture lessons are now the subject of game shows (GSN’s American Bible Challenge, now in its third season), and Sunday Best, BET’s Gospel-themed music-competition shows, continues to draw viewers.

The Word has even infiltrated the often crazy and bombastic world of reality programming, with shows such as Oxygen’s Preachers of L.A., Lifetime’s Preachers’ Daughters and WE tv’s Mary, Mary highlighting the surprisingly complicated lives of today’s religious and gospel music leaders.

On the big screen, no less than three major motion pictures featuring biblical themes and characters are in development. Two such films, The Son of God and Noah, are currently lighting up the box office charts.

Son of God, produced by prolific reality series creator Mark Burnett and his wife, actress Roma Downey (the pair also produced The Bible), has already grossed $58 million at the box office since its Feb. 28 release.

Noah, loosely based on the popular Old Testament story of Noah and his waterproof ark, has captured movie-going audiences to the tune of $44 million for its debut weekend of March 28-30, topping such films as teen drama Divergent, family offering Muppets Most Wanted and Arnold Schwarzenegger’s action/thriller Sabotage.

Industry executives say the resurrection of biblical-themed content comes as continued uncertainty over the future and world affairs takes its toll on a beleaguered public.

“After a number of years with a difficult economy and other things in this country, there’s resurgence in people to get back to a more spiritual life,” Charley Humbard, president and CEO of UP, said. “People are getting back to family and to their roots in faith and what they believe, so I think there is a perfect storm of these things aligning right now.”

Added NBC’s Salke: “I think [faith-based programming] is universally appealing at any time, but I think it’s even more so when people are looking for something grounded and real that reflects values and inspiration … it brings families together to watch these shows, and I think that’s really valuable.”

UP, which for its 10-year history has offered spiritual, faithfriendly programming through original content and acquired shows such as the off-network 1990s drama Touched By an Angel, certainly has benefited ratings-wise from a public more receptive to faith-based content.

UP posted a 15% year-to-year primetime ratings increase in 2013 among its core 25-54 audience with a mix of movies, specials and Gospel-themed plays that embraces faith and family values at a time when most cable networks are running away from the genre, according to Humbard.

“We were faithful when faithful wasn’t cool — we’re not targeting a demographic, but we’re targeting a committed audience,” he said. “We’re actually running harder toward where we started and not away from it.”

UP is running to capture a big, faith-based audience: more than 75 million Americans describe themselves as active Christians, according to a 2013 Simmons Research study.

Scripted faith-based entertainment programming has been a part of the television landscape for decades. Shows like The Waltons, Seventh Heaven, Little House on the Prairie and, more recently, Saving Grace have successfully embellished Christian themes within an otherwise entertainment-driven format. Even today, shows like NBC’s Believe, in which a young girl has been given angelic powers to help people in need, reflect faith-based values.

“We’ve played around in that area for a long time because we find it uplifting — it reaches out and touches people and makes them feel something, and that’s valuable to us,” NBC’s Salke said.

NBC took a leap of faith with the green-lighting of AD: Beyond the Bible, which examines the time after Jesus’ death and resurrection. The Burnett-produced series — much like the producer’s miniseries The Bible for History — will be deeply steeped in Christian scripture, though Salke isn’t worried that may turn off viewers. The broadcast network is also working with Burnett and Downey on an angel-themed scripted series.

“These stories are timeless and universal and I know the vision of AD that Mark and Roma have for it, and the entertainment value on top of its historical and biblical relevance will be undeniable,” Salke said. “I would bank on that any day of the week.”

History certainly banked on Burnett’s biblical TV vision and it led to one of the network’s most watched programs ever in The Bible. The series, which encapsulated the stories of the Good Book from Genesis to Revelation, averaged more than 11 million viewers during its five-week run last March.

The series wasn’t expected to be a big ratings bonanza for History, but its April 1 finale held its own against the season finale of AMC’s The Walking Dead, cable’s most-watched show. Both averaged a whopping 12.3 million viewers.

“The advantage we had with The Bible was that Mark Burnett and Roma were so well-connected within that community that they could build momentum around something like that, and they had experts and religious leaders consulting, so they involved the entire community across various religious disciplines,” Dirk Hoogstra, executive vice president and general manager of History and H2, said.

History and sister service H2 were no strangers to biblically themed documentaries — including H2’s The Bible Rules, which reveals the stories behind the scriptural rules and laws. But The Bible marked the programmer’s first attempt at telling faith-based stories in a scripted format, Hoogstra said.

Advances in production have allowed movie makers and producers to give new life to time-tested biblical stories, he added.

“I think that it’s been a while since you’ve seen real, modern- day, cinematic quality brought to these subjects,” he said. “That’s what Mark Burnett did — he brought a contemporary- style execution to what is thought of as a more traditional story — and that’s what you’re seeing with Noah and other films. I think with the modern filmmaking and CGI, you’re going to continue to see this resurgence.”

Indeed, in addition to NBC’s AD, movie studios are in production on several Bible-themed theatrical releases in 2014 and 2015. Producer Ridley Scott is helming Exodus, which stars Christian Bale as Moses; Warner Bros. is exploring a film based on the life of Jesus’ condemner, Pontius Pilate; and Sony is reportedly seeking to produce a film based on brothers Cain and Abel.

On cable, History’s Hoogstra said his network is pursuing a Christian-themed scripted series, although he would not disclose specific details. UP next year will produce quarterly “faith-pronounced” films, in a similar vein to the 2014 indie film God’s Not Dead, that directly tackle biblical themes.

“Those films really go deep with the core that loves this channel and loves those kind of movies and can be used as a marketing machine to get the really passionate viewers watching the network,” UP’s Humbard said.

UP will mark the April 20 Easter holiday with a cablehigh 123 hours of Easter-themed programming beginning today (April 7). The lineup will include 22 classic movies under the brand “The Greatest Stories of the Bible,” including The Greatest Story Ever Told, Barabbas, King of Kings and The Robe, the network said.

The centerpiece of UP’s Easter lineup is the first commercial airing of the 2004 film The Passion of the Christ, which earned more than $600 million for its theatrical run. Humbard isn’t concerned that an explicit telling of Jesus’ last hours maybe hard for some viewers to watch, adding that UP’s audience understands the subject matter.

“In its purpose, it’s a celebration of what Easter is all about,” he said.

Hollywood’s current fixation on biblical stories can only benefit the genre, Humbard added. “The more people that are doing programming that uplifts also raises the popularity of the genre that we have been in for 10 years,” he said. “It makes them understand that values-based programming can be highly entertaining.”

But History’s Hoogstra warns that like any other trend or fad, the current popularity of faith-based content can be fl eeting if the quality of the programming or the subject matter begins to wane.

“We did The Bible, and now you have Noah, and later the Moses film,” he said. “But I think after a certain amount of time it starts to get a little more obscure and that’s when I think you’ll see some of the big scale projects and interests in the genre become unsustainable.”

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.