Even as consumer research shows that most Americans think religion’s impact on public life is diminishing, networks in the religious space are ratcheting up their efforts to keep viewers informed through news, current-affairs programming and original docudramas.
From Catholic programmers stepping up their news coverage of Pope Francis to Jewishfocused networks delving into the conflicts involving Israel, the trend is toward creating new programming that reinforces the networks’ essential missions, as one network CEO said.
Programmers in the religious space continue to invest in new shows with production quality on par with bigger networks. Meanwhile, in the general-entertainment realm, networks are finding success with faithcentered content.
LAMENTING A LOSS
Research from the Pew Research Center’s Religion and Public Life Project indicates almost three-quarters of Americans — the highest percentage in more than a decade — think the influence of religion is diminishing in public life, meaning faith is taking on less of a role in affecting social and political decisions.
While that might be a discouraging development for religious organizations, including faith-based television networks, respondents also lamented the loss of religion in public life. That creates an opportunity for religious-content producers to branch out, take risks and go after that segment of the public that wants more religion in everyday life.
“It strikes me that there is a trend across the faith-based networks to try to generate and create new and interesting projects that convey our mission, but maybe convey those truths in a way that is more entertaining, more engaging, more interesting than we’ve done in the past,” Michael Warsaw, chairman and CEO of Eternal Word Television Network (EWTN), told Multichannel News.
For Catholic-focused EWTN, that includes this month’s four-part original miniseries The Crusades, shot on location in Turkey, Israel, Austria and elsewhere and featuring such academic experts as historians Jonathan Riley-Smith and Thomas F. Madden.
The network said the special is prescient, given the rise of ISIS militants in Iraq and Syria. “The Lord, with His perfect timing, knew that a miniseries on the Crusades needed to be ready to air in October,” EWTN said in a press release. “And so it is.”
Warsaw said the point was simply that religious conflicts have been going on for years, and there are parallels with battles being fought today against groups like ISIS.
The series aims to recast the Crusaders as liberators on a noble trek to make Christian holy sites secure against Muslim forces, rather than Christians on an imperialist journey of bloodlust, according to the conservative website Breitbart.com.
Warsaw said viewer response has been highly positive, and the network even sent a copy of the series to Pope Francis.
So far, Warsaw said, he hasn’t had a response from the pontiff. But then, the relatively new pope has been busy. His meeting with 200 bishops at the Vatican, the Synod on the Family, has led to early reports indicating a possible shift in church policy toward more tolerance of gay people and unmarried cohabitating couples.
EWTN has been covering the synod on its EWTN Nightly News program, with reporters at the Vatican.
“That’s precisely why we started the Nightly News program,” Warsaw said. “It gives us a voice in that conversation within the greater news cycle.”
Public-affairs programming continues to be a priority for religious networks of other faiths as well. Jewish Broadcasting Service, formerly Shalom TV, covered the conflict between Israel and Hamas daily throughout the summer. Jewish and non- Jewish figures weighed in on the series Israel in Turmoil.
JBS president and executive producer Mark Golub said he believes the network is building momentum with distributors, including Verizon Communications’ FiOS TV, that could result in launches in some new markets. He said he also hopes to make headway among such carriers as Comcast, Time Warner Cable and DirecTV in the coming year. That would mark a substantial improvement for JBS, which launched as an on-demand service in 2006 and then gained a berth on Cablevision Systems’ Optimum TV.
Mormon-centric based BYUtv (for Brigham Young University) has made gains of its own, though, more through entertainment than public-interest fare. Studio C, a sketch-comedy show that returned this month for a fifth season on air, now boasts 60 million views on YouTube, the channel said.
“You don’t have to be Mormon, you don’t even have to be religious, to appreciate the show,” co-creator and producer Jared Shores said. “That is a way that we can build bridges with people that don’t necessarily share our beliefs.” He said the show connects with families, via well-written but inoffensive humor.
Another BYUtv centerpiece, the Cold War drama Granite Flats, has also found a family following. Production has begun on a third season, which will feature guest appearances from Parker Posey and Scandal’s George Newbern, the network said.
22 MILLION SERVED
Secular networks are continuing to see benefits from embedding faith into entertainment shows. GSN’s hit quiz show American Bible Challenge, hosted by Jeff Foxworthy, debuted in 2012 to a network-record audience of 1.7 million viewers. Now in its third season, Bible Challenge is up 56% versus its time-period average, watched by 22 million total viewers, according to GSN.
A faith-based follow-up series, reality dating show It Takes a Church, has also found a following, according to Amy Introcaso-Davis, GSN’s executive vice president of programming. “It became a family event,” she said. “We always talk about It Takes a Church as the anti- Bachelor. There’s nothing like it in the marketplace, and people really like it.”
Added GSN vice president of affiliate sales Wil Rosser: “It’s an underserved market. And when you are successful speaking with them, they are voracious.”