TV’s zeitgeist is currently jam-packed with characters that straddle the moral abyss. Last month, the American public bade farewell to Breaking Bad’s Walter White and Dexter’s Dexter Morgan, two antiheroes with sordid back stories, to say the least. These characters have struck a chord with a hurting world and prompted many viewers to confront difficult, hard-to-reconcile moral questions.
“What you have are these morally blurred figures,” Maura Dunbar, executive vice president and chief content officer at faith-based production company Odyssey Networks, said.
While religious and faith-based television is often stereotyped as being archly dogmatic, Dunbar and many other religious content producers are seeking to create programming that engages the public in a dialogue about the many confounding aspects of everyday life in the 21st century.
“There’s a hunger for that, there’s a desire,” Dunbar said. “We can humanize the current topical issues and give clergy a way to help tie in.”
Odyssey’s digital project On Scripture—The Bible is a weekly program that brings top biblical scholars together to help people from across denominations interpret current events through the lens of scripture.
MODERN BIBLE LESSONS
“Jesus didn’t proselytize about the debt ceiling,” Dunbar observed, but On Scripture asks “how do you take His teaching and give people a moral or ethical center?”
Last month, the Henry Luce Foundation awarded On Scripture with a $200,000 grant to help continue production and develop ways to use the program as an educational resource for pastors and seminarians.
More than half a million people currently watch the videos each month on such websites as The Huffington Post, Sojourners and Religious Insights.
This summer, Hallmark Channel aired the film adaptation of Lori Copeland’s Stranded in Paradise, which was produced by Odyssey, along with the novel For Better or Worse.
But Odyssey’s biggest splash in recent years has been American Bible Challenge, currently in production on its third season on GSN with host Jeff Foxworthy. Dunbar said Odyssey was originally in talks with CMT, but the sales people at the network were “scared to death” of a biblical game show. GSN took the risk and it’s paid off big.
“The decision to pick it up [for a third go-round] was pretty much a no-brainer,” GSN vice president of programming David Schiff said, noting that American Bible Challenge is the highest-rated original program in the network’s history. “We knew we had a Southern-skewing audience, an African-American skewing audience, and we just thought faith had never really been done in this way.”
GSN also said at its 2013 upfront it was developing It Takes a Church, a new one-hour series pilot hosted by Christian singer Natalie Grant, in which a church’s congregation attempts to help a single parishioner find a soulmate, saving him or her from the dating world.
Other religious content producers are also taking on current events in new ways. This fall, Catholic network EWTN launched EWTN Nightly News With Colleen Carroll Campbell, along with nearly a dozen debuts of series and specials including Mother Teresa: All for Jesus and a conversation with Archbishop of New York Timothy Cardinal Dolan.
Next month, EWTN will debut a five-part documentary on California missionary Junipero Serra, Serra: Always Forward, Never Back. In December, it will air Bilbo’s Journey: A Catholic Travel Guide to the Hobbit, which discusses the Catholic underpinnings of Tolkien’s classic.
The flurry of content related to current events, and even some pop culture, illustrates the network’s desire to participate in a conversation on modern life. “We’re trying to make sure that we have a voice in the marketplace of ideas,” EWTN president and chief operating officer Doug Keck said. “The idea is that if you’re going to make decisions, you need to have all the information. It allows people to have greater context either inside or outside of the church.”
When Multichannel News last checked in with BYUtv, the Mormon network was getting ready to launch its first scripted series, a drama set in the 1960s called Granite Flats. Catching up with director of content Scott Swofford, he’s looking down from the mountaintop — literally. He’s on a mountainside at the Sundance Resort just outside Provo, Utah, shooting episodes for the second season of Flats.
“For a little network in the middle of nowhere, we sort of broke in to a significant audience,” Swofford said of the show, which netted about 1.75 million watchers for its debut, the biggest viewership in channel history.
BYU has another scripted show in development for next year, as well as a show focusing on women’s issues that will debut next spring. They’ve currently got a production team traveling throughout Europe filming a Christmas special for next year.
The variance in programming across faith-based networks clearly shows a vibrant and dynamic audience eager not just for sermons and talk shows, but many other forms, from game shows to scripted programming to current events. From that perspective, religious TV looks a lot like secular TV. There’s more there to unite than to divide.
Religious content producers are striving to create shows that engage in a dialogue about the moral dilemmas of 21st-century life.