When dogma meets drama on television

Soft-focus spirituality on TV gives way to programs with a more explicit religious viewpoint. Will audiences accept it?

When it comes to religion and pop culture, network television has never been much of a pioneer. Angels and vague references to God are about as much success as prime time has had with the topic - think "Joan of Arcadia," "7th Heaven," and "Touched by an Angel." But now that the film "The Passion of the Christ" has revealed an appetite for entertainment with specific religious themes, the small screen can't feed it fast enough.

This week, NBC launched "Revelations," a big-budget series that melds the mystery of an "X-Files" with prophecies ostensibly based on the New Testament. Writers at a scriptwriting conference last fall reported that all the network executives were asking for "anything with a religious theme." One such Bible-based show, "Book of Daniel," is in development for NBC.

"When you watch television shows, as good as they are, like 'Joan of Arcadia' and 'Touched by an Angel,' ... everything is this kind of mishmash of faith but not any specific religion," says David Seltzer, creator and executive producer of "Revelations." "I think people wanted to see some specificity in faith on TV."

But even as the major networks scramble to cash in on the latest trend, religious-themed programming is here to stay, say media watchers. The convergence of several long- and short-term trends is behind this programming development.

First, and perhaps most important, is the general misperception - shared by Hollywood - that the number of evangelical Christians in the United States is growing, says Charles Brown, a professor of sociology at Albright College in Reading, Pa. According to church estimates, the actual number (somewhere between 25 million and 75 million, depending on the definition) has remained steady over the past three decades, says Professor Brown.

Instead, the Christian entertainment industry has simply become more sophisticated.

In the 1980s, Christian producers discovered that the mass media were not an effective tool for converting non-Christians. The industry shifted its focus back to its own flock of believers through the wider, nonreligious network of mass-distribution outlets such as Wal-Mart and Borders bookstores. Everything from music by Christian rock artists to books such as the "Left Behind" series (and the spinoff direct-to-video movies based on those books) has been finding shelf space outside the traditional Christian bookstores. In 1999, an apocalypse-themed sci-fi film titled "The Omega Code" surprised media observers when its national theatrical release grossed nearly $20 million.

"We are becoming more aware of evangelical entertainment because it has entered the mainstream through new channels of distribution," says Brown.

Ever so slowly, Hollywood has begun to take notice of these sales. As a result, mainstream films have incorporated specifically Christian content - ranging from small references to larger dramatic themes - in a far more positive manner, according to the evaluation of Ted Baehr, chairman of the Christian Film and Television Commission. Even so, almost no one in the media centers of Los Angeles and New York predicted the extraordinary box-office success of "The Passion of The Christ."

The next long-term trend involves the maturing of baby boomers, bringing with it a concomitant interest in all things spiritual, says Mr. Baehr. "One of the forces at work in Hollywood is the aging of producers and writers who now have kids and grandkids," as is "the aging of the moviegoing demographic in general, as they search for values in their lives."

This search often takes place outside traditional houses of worship. "Our demographics [studies] show that there are many people seeking faith and spirituality," says Nicole Masker, director of event marketing for Women of Faith, the nation's largest nondenominational Christian women's conference.

But, she adds, "not necessarily in mainstream churches."

The urgency engendered by the 9/11 attacks and the war on terrorism is yet another factor in the surge of religious-themed entertainment, particularly fare that taps more extreme Apocalyptic visions. " 'Revelations' started with a call from [producer] Gavin Polone," says producer Seltzer. "He thought it was time, just given the state of the world and what we're seeing and hearing around us, to deal with the subject in the Book of Revelation about the possible collapse of everything - the end of days."

Finally, the choice to go for a plot heavy on special effects reflects yet another trend that is helping change the TV landscape. Network TV's struggle to survive in a multichannel universe has led to the rise of what some producers like to call "feature television," tapping the techniques of big movies for the small screen. Think big special effects, movie actors, and risky content, à la film producer Jerry Bruckheimer's hit "CSI" franchise on CBS.

"I would bet that they've [NBC] spent more per episode on ['Revelations'] than any show they've done in recent memory," says producer Polone. "The number and quality of visual effects, the locations, the fact that we've been shooting all of these episodes all throughout Europe," he adds, "it's all a very expensive thing to do and it's really much more like a feature."

NBC has committed to only six episodes of "Revelations" because - all spiritual conviction aside - "it's a business," says Polone. "How are we going to be able to increase our receipts?"

Look for spiritual themes as long as they sell, says industry insider Michel Shane. "They'll mine this trend till the next big thing that sells," says the film producer behind "Catch Me If You Can" and "I, Robot." "It's the nature of that industry and you can't fault it," he says. "It has to pay for itself, so it has to either create or follow trends and exploit them."

Religion aside, the producers of "Revelations" hope the human side of the story will pull viewers in. The characters are acting in the belief that they can avert Armageddon.

Seltzer points to the Dead Sea Scrolls, which were hidden away two millenniums ago when believers felt the end of days was at hand. "There are people who believe that someone managed to forestall that day," he says.

The story here revolves around a renegade nun, played by Natascha McElhone, who believes that, despite the growing power of evil in the world and the importance of biblical prophecy, humankind can still change its destiny. "When she says, 'I believe there is an opportunity for man to forestall the end of days. I think we're talking about what we all hope will happen," Seltzer says.

The producers are hedging their bets about the outcome. Since this is only six episodes of a new show, not a miniseries, it should come as no surprise to anyone that in Hollywood ratings trump even the Bible. If the show does well enough, it could go on ... and on.

"We're leaving it open," says Polone. "We're saying that this is a dramatic depiction of the metaphor that you would find in the Book of Revelation." Again, it's the human elements, not biblical necessities, that NBC hopes will keep people hooked.

"Whether there is a god or a devil," says "Revelations" actor Michael Massee, "it made me think that every one of us as human beings can do a little part and effect a global change."

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