This past Sunday the television industry felt the ground shake when the first installment of the History Channel’s five-part miniseries, The Bible, drew a whopping 14.3 million viewers. To put that in perspective, those are higher ratings than American Idol drew on Fox in the same week. Higher ratings than the premiere of Celebrity Apprentice on NBC. And it officially made The Bible the number one scripted cable broadcast of the year.
The news was apparently so astonishing it prompted Business Week to investigate exactly how the basic cable network pulled it off and inspired Time magazine’s resident T.V. critic, James Poniewozik, to ponder whether The Bible’s success will lead to further mainstream forays into religious-themed entertainment.
What’s more astonishing, given how often pro-faith productions put up massive numbers, is that major media outlets still feel the need to run shocked headlines about it.
First, of course, came The Passion of the Christ. The highest-earning R-rated movie of all time was expected to issue a wake-up call to the industry about the potential for films based on Scripture. When it didn’t, a series of indie movies from Sherwood Baptist Church reaped so much cash from their fairly meager showing, the Hollywood Reporter called them, “some of the most profitable films in modern history.” Then early last year the New York Times noted the success of the pro-Catholic, pro-life film, October Baby. And late last year American Bible Challenge debuted as the number one show ever to run on the Game Show Network.
All of this should have sent a clear message to network and studio executives long before last Sunday—if you build something of even middling quality (and, unfortunately, middling is generous in The Bible’s case) that is even remotely respectful of Christian faith, Christians of all stripes will tune in or buy tickets to see it. But it didn’t. Or at least, it didn’t if Time’s Poniewozik is any indication of what other industry insiders are saying to one another.
The shows that Poniewozik lauds for their authentic representation of believers are so unlikely to actually appeal to the faithful his comments would be laughable if they weren’t so culturally illiterate.
I’ll concede the criminally under-appreciated Friday Night Lights as one of the few programs that honored faith, but Big Love? The Good Wife? Game of Thrones? Whatever one thinks of the quality of these shows (and you’ll find no bigger fan of Thrones than this writer), is this really a national critic’s idea of entertainment that reflects the lives and values of religiously minded audiences? A show that trades on the ugliest and most inciting stereotypes of the people it purports to portray? A series that is as unabashedly secular and liberal as anything on television but claims one minor Christian character whose parents look at her askance and hope it’s a passing phase? As for the blood-soaked, sexually explicit fantasy that happens to contain a few invented religions, I’ll let that example pass without comment.
Consider this—according to recent Gallup polls, 3.4 percent of Americans identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgendered. Yet how many television shows feature at least one recurring character who represents this group? How many shows, even though they also include characters who aren’t LGBT, operate almost solely within the bounds of this group’s distinguishing attitudes and mores? It would probably be easier to make a list of major series that don’t feature at least one gay character rather than those that do.
By comparison, 43 percent of Americans in Gallup’s latest poll on church attendance (one of the largest and most comprehensive of its kind) say they attend services regularly. When Gallup broadens the question to include those who attend at least monthly, the figure rises to 54 percent.
Where are these people in our films and primetime lineups? How often do we see characters discussing how their faith impacts the conflicts and plot twists viewers see each week? How often do we see them going to church to look for answers to their problems? In that oh-so-representative domestic mash-up Modern Family, which of the three households is shown attending weekly religious services, let alone the mid-week Bible studies or small groups that are common for millions of Bible-believing Americans?
One thing’s for certain, those few producers able to identify and accurately represent that 54 percent should be worth their weight in Nielsen ratings and ticket stubs to network and studio executives.