Why is it so hard to do religion in prime time?

March 14, 2012

Why is it so hard to do religion in prime time?

Many TV network
executives, advertisers and producers would sell their souls to get the
kind of audience that God has. But giving religion a starring role in
prime time? Not so much.

Religion, God and spirituality have made cameos across the dial from The Sopranos to The Simpsons—though
usually as a prop or in a walk-on role. But shows in which religion is a
central part of the premise are rare, and the ratings are generally far
from heavenly.

Short of touchy-feely shows like Touched by an Angel or Highway to Heaven, why is religion so radioactive in Hollywood?

In March, cable network TLC canceled All-American Muslim after only about 700,000 viewers watched the season finale of the reality show featuring Muslims in Dearborn, Michigan.

Meanwhile, ABC's saucy new drama GCB—think Desperate Housewives in choir robes—which is based on Kim Gatlin's novel Good Christian Bitches has been panned by critics and called "anti-Christian" by Newt Gingrich. The GCB premiere on March 4 lost the coveted 18–49 demographic but climbed back during a subsequent episode.

From
a storytelling perspective, stories concerning religion have a sort of
universal appeal, said Cathleen Falsani, the new media director for Sojourners and a prolific author on the intersection of religion and pop culture.

"Art
imitates life, and in this country and most of the world, religion, and
certainly spirituality and faith, is a massive part of a lot of
people's lives, whether we're embracing it or reacting against it," she
said.

TLC thought All-American Muslim would be a fitting companion to its hit show Sister Wives, about
a polygamous fundamentalist Mormon family, said the show's cocreator
and executive producer, Mike Mosallam. "TLC prides itself on exposing
groups of people that normally you don't get to really see on mainstream
TV," Mosallam said. "They saw the opportunity to shed light on a
community that had been misunderstood for so many years."

Mosallam
said TLC expected some scrutiny for the show, but ultimately the
conservative backlash contending that the show was apologetic propaganda
for Islam received more attention than the show itself.

Jack Kenny ran into similar problems with his short-lived NBC drama The Book of Daniel,
about a dysfunctional but loving family headed by a pill-popping
Episcopal priest, which was pulled in 2006 after just four episodes.

"TV
shows generally need to be relatable to large groups of people," Kenny
said. "Everybody has their own specific view of religion . . . and
people feel like their religions are challenged all the time. People
aren't comfortable living with it, much less laughing about it or
following a story about it."

As a result, said Bob Thompson, a pop
culture expert at Syracuse University, "many religious subject matters
have been underutilized [on TV] simply because there's a sense that
they'll be controversial."

It's also sensitive terrain for advertisers. Lowe's famously pulled its ads from All-American Muslim last December after receiving complaints from the conservative Florida Family Association. The Book of Daniel
was marred by e-mail protests before the show even aired, "and every
single sponsor bailed out, except the Burlington Coat Factory. There's
no TV show if no one buys ads," Kenny said.

Christopher Jones,
vice president for the New York-based media buying agency Initiative
North America, said some clients specifically request that their ads not
be placed in shows related to religion or politics. Those decisions are
made "on a case-by-case basis," he said, but "we don't particularly
have a client that I'm aware of who views programs with a religious spin
as critical to their brand positioning."

Religion isn't
necessarily a deal breaker; sometimes the show just isn't interesting,
said Stewart Hoover, director of the Center for Media, Religion and
Culture at the University of Colorado at Boulder, citing All-American Muslim as an example.

To be sure, religion-oriented shows can and do succeed. Touched by an Angel and 7th Heaven had long runs because they took a "feel-good" approach to faith and were "generically religious," Hoover said. Sister Wives and HBO's polygamy drama Big Love
excelled because they looked at a marginalized religious group whose
fringe practices wouldn't challenge the majority's beliefs.

Going forward, especially if GCB
is canceled, Hoover suspects there could be a downturn in shows with
religious themes "if the industry sees these as examples of what happens
when you do religion."  —RNS