When Dogma Meets Drama on Television ; Soft-Focus Spirituality on TV Gives Way to Programs with a More Explicit Religious Viewpoint. Will Audiences Accept It?

Article excerpt

When it comes to religion and pop culture, network television has never been much of a pioneer. Angels and vague references to God are about as much success as prime time has had with the topic - think "Joan of Arcadia," "7th Heaven," and "Touched by an Angel." But now that the film "The Passion of the Christ" has revealed an appetite for entertainment with specific religious themes, the small screen can't feed it fast enough.

This week, NBC launched "Revelations," a big-budget series that melds the mystery of an "X-Files" with prophecies ostensibly based on the New Testament. Writers at a scriptwriting conference last fall reported that all the network executives were asking for "anything with a religious theme." One such Bible-based show, "Book of Daniel," is in development for NBC.

"When you watch television shows, as good as they are, like 'Joan of Arcadia' and 'Touched by an Angel,' ... everything is this kind of mishmash of faith but not any specific religion," says David Seltzer, creator and executive producer of "Revelations." "I think people wanted to see some specificity in faith on TV."

But even as the major networks scramble to cash in on the latest trend, religious-themed programming is here to stay, say media watchers. The convergence of several long- and short-term trends is behind this programming development.

First, and perhaps most important, is the general misperception - shared by Hollywood - that the number of evangelical Christians in the United States is growing, says Charles Brown, a professor of sociology at Albright College in Reading, Pa. According to church estimates, the actual number (somewhere between 25 million and 75 million, depending on the definition) has remained steady over the past three decades, says Professor Brown.

Instead, the Christian entertainment industry has simply become more sophisticated.

In the 1980s, Christian producers discovered that the mass media were not an effective tool for converting non-Christians. The industry shifted its focus back to its own flock of believers through the wider, nonreligious network of mass-distribution outlets such as Wal-Mart and Borders bookstores. Everything from music by Christian rock artists to books such as the "Left Behind" series (and the spinoff direct-to-video movies based on those books) has been finding shelf space outside the traditional Christian bookstores. In 1999, an apocalypse-themed sci-fi film titled "The Omega Code" surprised media observers when its national theatrical release grossed nearly $20 million.

"We are becoming more aware of evangelical entertainment because it has entered the mainstream through new channels of distribution," says Brown.

Ever so slowly, Hollywood has begun to take notice of these sales. As a result, mainstream films have incorporated specifically Christian content - ranging from small references to larger dramatic themes - in a far more positive manner, according to the evaluation of Ted Baehr, chairman of the Christian Film and Television Commission. Even so, almost no one in the media centers of Los Angeles and New York predicted the extraordinary box-office success of "The Passion of The Christ."

The next long-term trend involves the maturing of baby boomers, bringing with it a concomitant interest in all things spiritual, says Mr. Baehr. "One of the forces at work in Hollywood is the aging of producers and writers who now have kids and grandkids," as is "the aging of the moviegoing demographic in general, as they search for values in their lives."

This search often takes place outside traditional houses of worship. "Our demographics [studies] show that there are many people seeking faith and spirituality," says Nicole Masker, director of event marketing for Women of Faith, the nation's largest nondenominational Christian women's conference. …