Why History Channel's 'The Bible' draws boffo ratings despite reviews

Reviews of History Channel's 'The Bible' are lukewarm at best, but the Easter-season series is scoring high ratings, pointing to what some call an overlooked appetite for religious storytelling.

Courtesy of Joe Alblas/History/AP
Diogo Morcaldo portrays Jesus (r.) in a scene from History Channel's 'The Bible.'

This is the time of year for traditional sandals-and-toga programming, but this year’s five-episode, 10-hour History Channel miniseries, “The Bible,” is a sensation.

According to Nielsen, the first two Sundays leading up to Easter drew in some 12 million viewers, making it the top-rated cable program of the night. Horizon media, meanwhile, said some 50 million viewers tuned in to at least some portion of the program over the first three weekends of its run.

At the same time, reviews have been lukewarm at best, with critics dismissing it as shallow gore. Conservative commentator Glenn Beck, meanwhile, suggested the show was taking a veiled jab at President Obama by casting a look-alike actor as the devil.

But, say religious and entertainment experts, the runaway success of the Judeo-Christian-themed show reveals an appetite for religious programming that is consistently overlooked in Hollywood.

“We often forget that Christians are still the largest special interest group in America,” says Hollywood producer and Christian media advocate Phil Cooke.

“Whenever they rally behind a movie, TV series, product, or cause, something big happens,” he adds, pointing to the now landmark message sent by Mel Gibson’s “Passion of the Christ.” Within months, he notes, “nearly every studio in Hollywood had opened a faith-based division,” hoping to capitalize on that market.

The approach to the material is key, says Mr. Cooke. While TV is chock full of religious-themed programming around Easter, such shows typically look at issues that don’t appeal to the faithful, he notes. “These shows ask questions like ‘Is Jesus real?’ or ‘Did he sleep with Mary Magdalene?’ Those are not questions that this audience wants to know.”

The show’s producers are quick to point out that they consulted a bevy of experts, some 40 in all ranging from scholars to archeologists.

But, says religious historian Stephen Cooper, a professor of religion at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, Pa., it is the very absence of such talking heads that makes this show appealing.

“This is a very broad-based program that is not trying to teach anything from a specific point of view,” he says. Often, that kind of programming, while serious-minded, ends up defeating the purpose. “They usually have scholars from different points of view arguing about the historical issues they are discussing,” he says, adding that in the end this sends an ambivalent message and it does not make good entertainment.

“This is the ‘Rome’ phenomenon,” says Lesleigh Cushing, an assistant professor at Colgate University in Hamilton, N.Y., referring to the notably bloody and violent historical drama on HBO. Beyond that, she notes, “it’s the whole Bible, not just the Ten Commandments.”

Perhaps equally important, she says, “it does not seem to be morally preaching Christianity or any other point of view, it’s just telling the adventure. It’s a very masculine view of the Bible.”

This is not to say that Christians are approaching the show uncritically. Indeed, Brooklyner Carol Oliver, a deacon in her Dutch reformed church, says she was initially put off by the trailers.

“They looked really violent, with guys in pointy metal helmets yelling football-type things at each other as they go to war,” she says.

Ms. Oliver reluctantly tuned in, she says, after a fellow church member told her to take a look. She copied it to her DVR and rose Monday morning to watch the program, “skipping all the commercials.”

She faults what she calls the hodge-podge of modern-appearing actors with some efforts to appear more authentically period. And she does not like the emphasis on fighting. But, she adds, now that most of the big wars of the Old Testament are over, “I’ll probably watch the rest of the show as it finishes Jesus’ story.”

Seeking to explain the broad appeal of the series to what he believes to be a largely Christian audience, Bob Waliszewski, director of the Plugged In Ministry, which reviews media for Christian advocacy group Focus on the Family, says, “This may be largely preaching to the choir, but the choir is increasingly illiterate when it comes to the Bible.” This series allows people with a sketchy grasp of the Scriptures, he says, “to sit and watch it in the privacy of their homes.”

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