April 5, 2005
LOS ANGELES - The Gospel according to Mel, as the TV industry views it, is that religion sells. With Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ" ranked among the 10 highest-grossing movies ever and with glowing visions of "The Da Vinci Code" profits before them, TV networks are embracing a newfound faith.
A miniseries about the Book of Revelation airs next week, while shows about a Catholic priest probing the supernatural and an Episcopalian minister who converses with God are on the drawing board.
Traditionally soft-focused spirituality, exemplified by "Touched by an Angel" and "Joan of Arcadia," is giving way to programs rooted in specific religions and their elements.
Do networks have a prayer of turning stronger fare into ratings winners?
There are believers - especially those connected to the shows - and doubters.
When "Revelations" was pitched to four networks, they "all bit," said executive producer Gavin Palone, who sold the project to NBC before Gibson's film was released. Debuting April 13, the miniseries is about a scientist and a nun investigating evidence that the "End of Days" as predicted in the Bible is near.
"The Book of Daniel," about a minister (Aidan Quinn) who abuses prescription drugs and is visited by a "cool, contemporary Jesus," is in development at NBC. Fox is working on "Briar + Graves," a pilot about a priest teaming with a neurologist to examine unexplained events.
"I think the thing that's surprising is that it's taken them so long," Palone said. "We've always lived in a country that was distinctly religious, a country that believes in God.
"The fact that the entertainment industry has not reflected it and has been so fearful of portraying it on screen says more about executives in the movie and television industry as opposed to the country," he said.
The public's appetite for religious-themed projects has emerged as broadcasters continue their quest for edgy programming able to compete with unfettered cable shows such as HBO's "The Sopranos" and FX's "The Shield."
But network executives shouldn't necessarily let Gibson's success go to their head, said media analyst Larry Gerbrandt.
"If you're going to depict spirituality on television, to reach the `Passion of the Christ' audience, it has to resonate as truth, as authentic, if that's what you're going for," said Gerbrandt, who said he was speaking as both an analyst and a Christian.
If "Revelations," for instance, doesn't exhibit fidelity to its source, he said, "I either find it offensive or say, `Oh, there's just one more producer looking for a cheap hook.'"
One producer, whose drama about a priest lasted a few scant months in the 1997-98 season on ABC, has his own reservations about whether bold network shows about faith are feasible.
"Nothing Sacred," created by David Manson and Bill Cain, a Jesuit priest, won critical acclaim and awards but couldn't capture an audience.
"I think people like their religion spoon-fed, and that's not the way we approached it," Manson said. "We weren't doing `Touched by an Angel,' we weren't doing a sort of simple, all-embracing spirituality that didn't ask any questions.
"We were doing a character drama about a priest who finds his faith on the edge of doubt and who was very much engaged in the mess of life," he said.
That "mess" included the issues of abortion, illegal immigration and AIDS. In one episode, an unmarried, pregnant woman seeking advice is told by the priest that what she decides "depends on your own conscience."
The series was hurt by an unforgiving time slot opposite NBC's popular sitcom "Friends," Manson acknowledged.
But "Nothing Sacred" was outstripped in the ratings by two other shows of middling popularity, "Promised Land" and "Living Single." Manson believes the larger issue of a polarized society was at work.
"What happened to `Nothing Sacred' is that it really became fodder in these ongoing culture wars, and those culture wars are still very much with us as we've seen in the last couple weeks," he said, referring to the Terri Schiavo right-to-die debate.
"I don't think generally the networks want to court controversy and advertisers don't want to court controversy," he said.
Palone disagrees. He's convinced viewers, including the nonreligious, will welcome a show with a distinct point of view on religion, which he argues no previous program has attempted.
"If you watch 'Revelations' and you're a nonbeliever or somebody who believes in a different religion, I think you'd enjoy the entertainment value of the show and the fact it's dissimilar from every other choice you have on TV," he said.
A series can be scorned by the devout and still succeed on dramatic merits, Gerbrandt notes. In the splintered TV universe, with viewership divided among many choices, ratings don't have to be stellar.
"Remember, a hit show today only has to be watched by 10 percent of the audience. So it can miss 90 percent of the audience and win," he said.
If "Revelations" succeeds, Palone predicts, there will be "10 copies of it" - and if it bombs, it could kill the trend before it starts.
"It's ultimately a business and that's all they (networks) pay attention to," he said.