Presentations like ‘A.D. The Bible Continues’ and ‘The Dovekeepers’ are programmed increasingly on mainstream
This spring, a complicated new protagonist is coming to television. A mysterious but charismatic figure from modest origins, he inspires fierce loyalty in his scrappy band of followers but is dismissed as a dangerous impostor.
No, he’s not the latest AMC or HBO antihero: He’s Jesus.
As Easter approaches, a flood of religious-themed programming is due to hit the airwaves. It begins Sunday with the National Geographic Channel’s three-hour movie “Killing Jesus,” based on Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard’s bestselling book, and continues on Easter with the premiere of NBC’s 12-episode event series, “A.D. The Bible Continues,” a look at the early days of the Christian church from faith-based media giants Mark Burnett and Roma Downey.
“We think it’s a game-changer,” said Chris Stone, founder of Faith Driven Consumer, a Christian advocacy group. “It’s a very pivotal point when one of the legacy networks, broadcast to the whole country, recognizes that the audience is there.”
Eager to tap into the vast and often overlooked faith-based audience that turned “The Bible,” also from Downey and Burnett, into a ratings blockbuster for History in 2013, networks that have traditionally shied from overtly religious programming are now embracing spiritually oriented shows. The religious gold rush is part of the industry-wide hunger for DVR-proof programming.
For people of faith, events don’t get much bigger than the life of Jesus and his followers or the Roman siege of the Jewish settlement at Masada, the latter of which is subject of “The Dovekeepers,” a miniseries from Downey and Burnett’s LightWorkers Media that debuts Tuesday on CBS.
Even cable news networks have caught on to the trend: CNN has “Finding Jesus: Faith, Fact, Forgery,” a six-part examination of relics tied to Jesus, and the Weather Channel has “Top 10: Bible Weather,” a look at Old Testament-style catastrophic storms and floods. Production of biblically themed television projects has been so brisk that at one point last fall there were three Jesuses staying at the same hotel in Ouarzazate, the Moroccan filmmaking center that often stands in for the Holy Land.
Other networks are creating shows that, while not necessarily aimed at faith-based viewers, take inspiration from religion. USA’s miniseries “Dig,” a “Da Vinci Code”-like adventure partially filmed in Jerusalem, includes plot twists drawn from the Hebrew Bible. The CW, a network better known for shows about sexy teen vampires, has the whimsical comedy “Jane the Virgin,” about a chaste and devoutly Catholic young woman who, like Mary, becomes pregnant through extraordinary circumstances. In April, the CW will launch “The Messengers,” a drama about a band of (highly attractive) apocalyptic angels.
Though much was made of last year’s trio of biblically inspired films — “Noah,” “Exodus: Gods and Kings” and “Son of God” — religious epics have been a mainstay of cinema since the silent era. On the small screen, however, it has been a different story.
Outside of quasi-Christian dramas like “Touched by an Angel,” “Joan of Arcadia” and “Highway to Heaven” and a series of Old Testament-inspired movies on TNT in the mid-’90s, programming aimed squarely at viewers of faith or taken directly from Bible stories has been scarce on broadcast networks and mainstream cable channels.
Then along came “The Bible,” which served as a wake-up call for the industry. Airing on Sundays — television’s marquee night — and targeting the underserved faith-based audience, the miniseries attracted a flock of 13 million viewers to its premiere and easily beat its rivals on broadcast over its five-week run. “Son of God,” a theatrical release drawn from outtakes from “The Bible” and produced for a relative pittance of $22 million, was a box office hit last year.
According to the most recent information from the U.S. Census Bureau, about three-quarters of the adult population — some 175,000,000 people over the age of 18 — describe themselves as Christian. A Gallup survey in 2010 found that about 43% of Americans regularly attend church services. That’s a ratings share that networks can only dream about.
So why have television networks, particularly the Big Four broadcasters, been so wary of religious programming?
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