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
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,"
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. …