Why the biblical epic is back in Hollywood – especially on cable

After decades of slim pickings for faith-based programming, Hollywood and cable channels are turning back to biblical and religious themes, and, notably, big audiences.

Joe Alblas/History/AP
This publicity image shows Diogo Morcaldo as Jesus (r.), in a scene from "The Bible," on the History Channel. After a hiatus, religion is back on cable television and on the big screen.

From a new six-hour “Jesus of Nazareth” to the History Channel's 10-hour epic "The Bible" and GSN’s popular “The American Bible Challenge” – not to mention Amish, Jewish, and Mormon-themed scripted and unscripted shows – the TV landscape is suffused with heavenly programming.

Add a gaggle of Bible-based feature films headed to the local cineplexes in the near future, and it’s pretty clear that Hollywood has gone and got religion in a pretty serious way, say industry insiders as well as media and religion experts.

This is both a shift from recent trends and a return to earlier days in Tinseltown. Hollywood certainly had a history of biblical epics stretching for decades, from Cecil B. DeMille's “The Ten Commandments" (1923) to Franco Zefferelli’s “Jesus of Nazareth” (1977). But religion had fallen out of fashion in more recent decades, especially on broadcast television. Now it's back, primarily on cable, as well as in film.

The industry has become increasingly vocal in support of progressive causes, says Ben Bogardus, journalism professor at Quinnipiac University in Hamden, Conn. This has led to an "echo chamber” in which the teams in the writer’s rooms for popular sitcoms and dramas only hear their own views reinforced by like-minded colleagues.

With writers wanting to push the envelope on progressive issues and seeing religious groups as tending to oppose such ideas, he says, what developed was a “very insular attitude about religion in many parts of the entertainment industry.”

Hollywood’s big epiphany about the importance of the religious segment of the viewing audience came in 2004, when Mel Gibson’s independently made “Passion of the Christ” stunned the industry with its nearly half-billion-dollar box office take worldwide.

“There is a big community of people who want to watch shows that respect their commitment and faith,” says Paul Lauer, chief executive officer of Motive Entertainment in Santa Monica, Calif., who marketed “Passion.”

After "Passion," studios tried to ramp up their faith-based offerings, with mixed results. Studios created faith-based divisions and hired scholars and archaeologists. But New Line Cinema's epic "The Nativity Story" (2006) fell flat at the box office. Studios were chastened.

Still, Hollywood has many churchgoers in its midst who have kept a low profile over the years, says Mr. Lauer, “What has changed is they are coming out of the closet and making their presence felt, as the industry has expressed more interest in reaching that audience.”

Faith-based programming has been more successful on cable television, where costs are lower and producers are constantly trolling for new ideas. “Like most television forms, faith-based productions cycle in and out of popularity just like variety, comedy, and drama. They can also be evergreens – in April of 2012, 'The Ten Commandments' won the evening for ABC playing for the umpteenth time during the Easter/Passover season,” points out Allen Sabinson, dean of Drexel University’s Antoinette Westphal College of Media Arts & Design, via e-mail.

“From a business point of view, these often expensive productions can be financed with partners from across the world contributing to the production costs in return for broadcast rights in their own territories. These are stories that play across borders and continents,” he says.

As for what’s behind this latest wave, Mr. Sabinson suggests that the current social and political climate has primed the pump for inspirational programming. “Their renewed popularity is related in part to the fact that there are so many problems in the world today, and these timeless stories provide some comfort and relief from the daily headlines on war, disasters, and economic troubles,” he says.

The surge in faith-based programming finding an audience is no surprise, agrees Julie Byrne, an expert in media and religion at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y. “Religion is one of the most distinctive aspects of the American identity,” she says.

“Faith and God are largely passé in most European countries,” she adds, but it is still a very active force in American life. She points to the 2008 PEW Religious Landscape Survey that found 85 percent of Americans self-identify as Christian. “If you add to that figure additional people who might believe in God but are not necessarily Christian or any other specific religion, you have a large media-consuming population ready for shows that speak to their interests.”

Audiences should have no illusions about the financial motivation behind this surge, suggests Wil Gafney, a professor at Lutheran Theological Seminary in Philadelphia.

"It is no accident that the History Channel 'Bible' series is accompanied by a massive marketing campaign, includes Bible study guides and a follow-up novel,” she points out, adding, “it is also the case that studios copy each other when they think one or another has an idea that is likely to sell.”

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