Networks Make a Show of Faith

How Scripted Series Are Starting to Explore Religious Themes
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Several cable networks have put their ratings faith into scripted dramas and comedies that have church- and religion-based themes as a backdrop.

Shows ranging from dramas like OWN’s upcoming Greenleaf, starring Oprah Winfrey; Bounce TV’s first original series, Saints & Sinners; and AMC’s DC Comics-driven Preacher to comedies like TV Land’s The Soul Man and Impastor feature religious overtones that networks say help bless the show’s main storyline and characters — who often than come across more as sinners than saints.

“The shows provide a fresh perspective of the world that we know,” Ri-Karlo Handy, senior vice president of original programming for multicast network Bounce TV, said about the new church-themed drama series Saints & Sinners. “We’re not being overly religious, but instead are showing real, flawed characters that often make mistakes even in the midst of the church.”

TRACK RECORD OF RATINGS WINS

Church- and religious-themed original movies and limited series have generated strong numbers in recent years. History’s five-episode series The Bible averaged more than 13 million viewers in 2013, while National Geographic Channel’s original movie Killing Jesus set a ratings record last March with 3.7 million viewers. (Nat Geo will target the faith-based audience in a different way on April 3 with the new docuseries The Story of God With Morgan Freeman.)

Until recently, though, there have been very few scripted drama or comedy series on television that have featured the church or religion as a main component of a show’s storyline. Unlike reality or Bible-based documentary shows, which tend to have a more preachy focus, scripted dramas and comedies focus less on theology and more on the human and often-flawed characters within the church, executives said.

For African-American targeted network Bounce TV, Saints & Sinners, which stars Vanessa Bell Calloway (Coming to America) and Gloria Ruben (ER) and follows the conflicts among members of a small-town Georgia Baptist church, drew a network-record 1.5 million cumulative viewers for the episode that bowed March 13.

“Our audience is one that really likes the drama and the characters, and this is a great new backdrop that they haven’t seen,” Handy said.

“Not every character in our show is a devout Christian, but they have some sort of connection to the church, whether good, bad or indifferent.”

OWN also hopes to draw religious and non-religious viewers to Greenleaf, which debuts in June. The show, the first scripted series in which network CEO Oprah Winfrey will have a recurring acting role, follows a powerful and influential family and their Memphis, Tenn., megachurch.

Greenleaf gives the network a way to reach its core viewers with drama, as it did with the Tyler Perry-created series The Haves and the Have Nots, but this time with a show that probes religious themes, OWN president Erik Logan said.

“We find this arena to be compelling and interesting … there hasn’t been a lot of exploration to date in it, and I think it’s an area where we see opportunity to put real characters and real situations on screen for storytelling purposes,” he said. “Ultimately, it’s about all the challenges that a large family has, but the background that the church provides is a very interesting and compelling stage for us to have this story and have these very rich and diverse characters talk from.”

‘SOMETHING LARGER AT PLAY’

TV Land has approached religion afrom a comedy standpoint with freshman series Impastor, about a gambling addict who ends up stealing the identity of a gay pastor, and The Soul Man, which stars Cedric the Entertainer as a superstar singer who returns to lead his father’s church.

The Soul Man, which launches its fifth and final season March 30, is TV Land’s most watched show among African-Americans.

The religious themes add a new wrinkle to the show’s overall characters and storylines, TV Land executive vice president of development and original programming Keith Cox said.

“While the church is a background element in every episode, it’s really just a touchstone for the idea that there’s always something larger at play,” Cox said.

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