Magazine article Variety

Niche Nets Have Faith

Magazine article Variety

Niche Nets Have Faith

Article excerpt

TUNING IN

TV is finding its religion.

If programmers have often approached religion tentatively for all the obvious reasons, a niche-oriented TV world is slowly spawning signs of bravery (tinged with, perhaps an element of desperation), as those eager to stand apart from the pack seek to navigate what can be treacherous waters.

Geme offshoots are broadly split into two camps: Shows designed to appeal to Christians, who represent roughly three-quarters of the U.S. audience, and whose most vocal members often complain about feeling disrespected by mainstream media; and programs devoted to narrow religious or cultural groups, aiming to deliver exotic windows into arcane worlds.

In the former category, GSN - a network that has gradually morphed from its confining birth name Game Show Network - will introduce "The American Bible Challenge," a gameshow testing biblical knowledge, hosted by comedian Jeff Foxworthy.

Although the look and trappings are familiar, the content and details aren't. In the Aug. 23 premiere, a gospel choir sings, "Yes, Jesus Loves Me," bracketing the commercial breaks, and contestants pray together before the final round.

GSN is a relatively small network, but industry sources are paying attention to whether "Bible Challenge" works, as well as other higher-profile projects, like History's upcoming 10hour miniseries, "The Bible," from "Survivor" producer Mark Burnett.

On the flip side, TLC in particular has created what amounts to franchises based on minority faith or cultural groups. "AllAmerican Muslim" sought to put a human face on a community misunderstood and vilified since the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, but the network has also delved into arcane belief systems and ethnic groups, including "Sister Wives" (about polygamists), "My Big Fat American Gypsy Wedding" (where gaudily attired teenage girls are paired off for marriage in accordance with their Romanichel traditions) and "Breaking Amish," about young Amish renouncing their traditions to explore life in New York. That show premieres in September.

The bigger gambit, though, likely involves courting Christians, whom activists contend have spent years hungering for more uplifting programming. At the same time, groups like the American Family Assn. and Parents Television Council have seized on negative depictions - most recently in ABC's since-canceled "GCB," derived from a book titled "Good Christian Bitches" - to portray themselves as victims, yet again, of a Hollywood establishment hostile to their values. …

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