Religious TV Makes A Comeback

By Susan Visakowitz

In the mid-1980s, religious television underwent what might be called a crisis of faith, for audiences everywhere felt they had been betrayed by it. American “swindlers” like Jim Bakker and Jimmy Swaggart lay behind the so-called “televangelist” scandal, wherein religious events were staged for TV audiences in order to solicit “donations” that were used partly to line the pockets of these crooked men of the cloth. The duplicity of the various people responsible for such programs stigmatized religious TV for years to come, even outside of the U.S.

Nearly two decades later, religious programming is making a miraculous comeback: an array of companies never involved with televangelism, like Faith & Values Media of New York, Tremendous! Entertainment of Minnesota, Comarex of Mexico and Lux Vide and Mondo TV of Rome, Italy, are experimenting with the genre and finding success. Of course, the formula for religious TV has radically changed - magazine-style series, movies of the week (MOWs) and documentary specials are now more important than taped worship services or lectures by clergy - and many commercial broadcasters are being drawn in, among them MediaTrade (now RTI) and RaiTrade of Italy. How the new programming is tackling religion is different, too, approaching it from either a more socio-cultural angle or a more broadly spiritual one, rather than relying on dogmatism or exclusivity.

Faith & Values Media was formed in 1987 as a response to the way “all those scandals in the ’80s co-opted the whole religious TV world,” said vice president of production and programming, Bill Reilly. The company’s founding principle, he explained, was “no fundraising, no proselytizing, and no maligning of any faith.” With the financial backing of Liberty Media’s John Malone, Faith & Values began airing its programming on its own VISN cable channel, which went through a number of name-changes. But it wasn’t until recently, when the company decided to give up its channel presence and move all of its programming to the Hallmark Channel, that Faith & Values started to make waves. An original two-hour movie, Love Comes Softly, became Hallmark’s highest rated telecast ever when it premiered in April. “That vaporized any concern about our programming having broad appeal,” said Reilly.

From the start, Faith & Values has aimed to “show a broader world of faith,” Reilly continued. “Our programming concerns morality and social justice, human values, as much as it does faith.” Ed Murray, Faith & Values’ president and CEO, said programs like America at Worship, a weekly three-hour series, attract all types of people because they feature “pastoral theologians who can speak to contemporary issues, like war, and who are not tied up in trade talk or jargon.” On top of that, he added, “our programs are not invented for TV. . . . They give people a feeling for what it’s really like to experience a Catholic mass or other religious traditions.”
Faith & Values’ approach is working: the company’s widely-appealing programming is drawing a growing audience. When asked why he thinks religious TV is getting people’s attention again, Murray replied: “So much of the world is driven by, defined by, what people believe, not what they have or know. And history has led us to a place where that’s being rediscovered.”
Murray pointed out the success of religious-themed programs on broadcast networks, such as the WB’s 7th Heaven, and added: “For so many people, a character has to struggle with faith on some level to be credible. Over 85 percent of Americans identify as believers; they don’t live in a vacuum. The media that pays no attention to that, doesn’t get it.”
Jane Durkee, of Minnesota-based Tremendous! Entertainment, echoed some of Murray’s sentiments. While Tremendous! is not exclusively dedicated to religious programming, Durkee feels that “worldwide, audiences, buyers and consumers are more aware of the role of religion [since September 11th]. From the news, from magazines, whatever their source, they are learning about the deep-seated beliefs that motivate people.” Such programming is therefore becoming more and more valuable to the company, but it does have to “appeal to a wider audience” to work from a business standpoint. Otherwise, buyers tend to shy away. “Buyers don’t want to have the perception that [the religious aspect of a program] is limiting,” she said.

So how does one include a religious component without overdoing it? “A lot of our programming takes a forensic science approach to religious history,” explained Durkee. “Forensic science is very hot right now, and combining that with religion makes [the programming] have broad appeal. That opens doors on the market.” Tremendous! has also done programs that take an “adventure” or “anthropological” approach to religion. The Beyond the Legend documentary series, for example, is based around the travels of two explorers who set out to solve various biblical mysteries, such as finding the remains of Noah’s Ark. Scientists, archaeologists and other experts weigh in, historical evidence is presented and, in some cases, recreations are done to “bring the stories to life,” said Durkee.

Much of the Tremendous! catalogue that has a religious component is just beginning to launch worldwide. But Durkee feels confident that it will be marketable in most territories, noting that Latin America is particularly promising: “Their religious faith is such a large part of life there. And whatever you believe, this programming can still apply. We’re not letting it be pigeonholed.”
In a country like Mexico, where elaborate religious celebrations are a routine part of life, one would imagine it’d be easy to find religious programming on TV. But Comarex’s Ernesto Ramirez explained that “in the 19th century, the church and state were separated in Mexico. . . . Politicians have not wanted to be identified with religion, and so on free TV, a sort of censorship applies: TV networks don’t want to be identified with religion.” In the early ’90s, however, “attitudes began to change, and there is a demand now [for religious programming], but it’s still controversial. . . . It’s difficult to air such programs on free TV, so people look more to cable for this type of thing.”

Aside from this challenge, Ramirez believes that religious programming has to have an “historical or esoteric value to make it appealing” to most audiences, both in Mexico and worldwide. “Using programs to market religions - that’s boring. But analyzing religions - where do they come from, where are they going - that’s something people are interested in. . . . Perhaps it’s not for me to say, but I think religion is a great invention of men, a great business of men, and people want to explore that. They want to look at religion from a cultural perspective.” Like Murray and Durkee, Ramirez feels that recent history is propelling religious TV into becoming a sustainable trend: “People are just trying to understand what they can in this global world of ours!” he declared.

Italy’s Mondo TV is a production company specializing in animation. When asked why Mondo makes so many religious-themed animated series, international sales manager, Ricky Corradi, said, “The Bible is supposed to be a teaching book, and it’s part of the mission statement of Mondo to make only and exclusively family-oriented, educational programming.” Moreover, he added, “historical, religious programming fulfills a niche.” According to Corradi, Mondo’s religious-themed series have had success in various territories, “not just Italy, but South America, Spain. We even have co-production deals with Singapore and India now.”

Corradi feels that the shared heritage between the three major world religions helps religious TV translate all over: “The Old Testament is a common book to Muslims, Jews and Christians. . . Some programs do appeal more to some groups than others, but when seen as historical titles, there is less opposition from networks and audiences.” He added that while Mondo is not selling to Israel yet, “it should work in the future. We are selling some programs in the Middle East.”

America is also opening up, observed Corradi. “I don’t know if it’s because of Bush and company, but there is more of a demand there now for this type of programming.” Successful religious TV companies, he added, don’t tend to infringe upon each other because they are serving different audiences at different times. “If anything,” he said, “I think all of these companies could be complementary to each other.” He noted that Mondo has had beneficial co-production relationships with RAI and Mediaset, who also produce their own religious programs.

Madeline McEneney, head of international sales for Faith & Values, noted that this past July marked the one-year anniversary of the department, and added, “The response has been overwhelming. We’re finding that people are hungry for our programming. Either they were already looking for religious programming, or, after seeing the quality and variety of our [programs], they decided they want it.”
Corradi concluded by saying, “There is a sprouting of religious programming all over the world. Quality programming is being made, and audiences are receptive to it.” Faith & Values obviously believes: the company hopes to launch a digital cable channel, simply to be called The Faith & Values Channel, in the not-too-distant future, and is also exploring video on demand (VOD) and home video sales, among other revenue-boosting possibilities. Ready or not, the religious TV revival is here.