Unsensational TV Show Keeps Blood Pressure Low: 'Religion & Ethics News Weekly' Defies Market Expectations

Article excerpt

When "Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly" first appeared in 1997, I suspect that among those who noticed it, a good many said, "Isn't that nice! But there's no demand."

Religious drama on television tends to focus on the sensational--angels, devils, miracles, mystics, uptight priests, tough nuns and the end of the world. When it comes to religious news, on the big stories like the papal death and election the secular media provide spectacular coverage. On ethical issues with religious dimensions, such as the Terry Schiavo case, the record is mixed.

But anchored by an experienced, low-key TV newsman, Bob Abernethy, "Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly" has come up with more than enough news for more than 400 shows on 280 PBS stations. He has won more than 65 awards and held an estimated 550,000 viewers a week.

The show's success is due both to the improvement in religious journalism on TV, public radio and in print and to the show's strict adherence to a formula modeled on the "NewsHour with Jim Lehrer": introduce news items, focus on two big stories, an interview or profile, and summary.

"Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly" has not created "buzz," partly because it deals with controversy so evenhandedly that chances of the viewer's blood boiling are zero. About seven years ago (NCR, Feb. 27, 1998), I wrote that "Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly" would be stronger if it did more investigative reporting and had a more clearly defined point of view. That is still true.

Nevertheless, more has been happening than meets the eye. This summer I watched seven live shows or tapes and spent hours on the Web site (www.pbs.org/wnet/religionandethics), reading interviews with personalities familiar to NCR--John Allen, Tom Roberts, Fr. Bryan Hehir, Fr. Tom Reese, Dave Gibson and others--and checking topics like the Iraq War (122 items), torture (28) and civilian casualties (15), which standard diocesan papers tend to pass over as not sufficiently "religious" news. The TV program and Web site, which includes cross-references and bibliographies, become a precious library for research.

Recently "Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly" has focused on women's clinics that offer sonograms in order to dissuade women from choosing abortion; United Airlines' decision to declare bankruptcy and cut back on pension payments; Tony Hall, ambassador to the United Nations' humanitarian agencies and a former Democratic congressman from Ohio who works to bring food to the starving people of the world; the split within both the Supreme Court and the scholarly community on the meaning of "separation of church and state"; and college students' use of "smart pills" (amphetamines) to help them "ace" their exams.

In interviews the correspondents draw out each case's religious or ethical angle, carefully developing each side, leaving it to the viewer either to rejoice that a woman who came to the "women's clinic" thinking it was an abortion clinic changed her mind when she saw and loved the human form of her child or to agree with the Planned Parenthood spokeswoman who charged that the unwary client had been manipulated by religious ideology. Oddly, it seems to me, they present the "smart pill" case as one of justice--is it fair that rich students have more access to brain boosters than the poor? …