Television’s Bible boom: Plenty of faith-based shows to choose from

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    In this image released by NBC, Juan Pablo Di Pace portrays Jesus in a scene from “A.D. The Bible Continues.” The first of the 10 episodes airs on Easter, picking up where its predecessor, the wildly popular “The Bible” series from the History Channel left off and going on to tell the story of what happened to Christ’s disciples after the crucifixion. (AP Photo/LightWorkers Media/NBC, Joe Alblas) (The Associated Press)

This Easter and Passover weekend, television viewers will have a plethora of Bible based shows to choose from, giving them ample opportunity to get in touch with their faith. In fact, between last Palm Sunday and this Easter Sunday there have been and are, no less than 13 Bible-themed offerings.

Some are dramatizations like NatGeo’s “Killing Jesus,” based on the bestselling book by Fox News Channel’s Bill O’Reilly, and CBS’s the “Dovekeepers” about the siege of  Masada based on a novel by Alice Hoffman. “Killing Jesus” re-airs on Fox News Channel on Easter Sunday at 8 p.m. ET.

But there are also Bible documentaries like the Science Channel’s “Biblical Conspiracies” and American Heroes’ “Secrets of the Bible.”

One that takes a different turn is by NBC called “A.D. The Bible Continues,” produced by Mark Burnett and wife Roma Downey. Downey says of “A.D.,” “[It] allows us to take a deeper dive into Scripture. And it’s the first 10 chapters of the book of Acts. The first episode emotionally resets the story with the crucifixion of Jesus and his resurrection. Because we know of course that the story didn’t end at the cross. It was just the beginning.”

Dr. Ted Baehr, chairman of the Christian Film and Television Commission, says there are few reasons for so much religious programming this weekend. First it’s the holiest week of the year for Christians and one of the holiest for Jews.

Baehr says the second reason is demographics. “People go through phases. Disney called it the Golden Cycle. People are having children and want their children to have the same experience with faith they had.”

But third, he says, “There’s a whole new group in Hollywood getting excited about faith and values.”

Tom Allen, a partner with Allied Faith & Family agrees saying, “Growing up we always had ‘The Ten Commandments,’ ‘The Greatest Story Ever Told,’ ‘King of Kings,’ and Zeffirelli’s ‘Jesus of Nazareth’ at Eastertime. After a roughly five decade hiatus, the Bible’s back! It’s high time.”

That the Bible is popular is not in question. It is the best-selling book of all time.  That the entertainment industry has made money off of it is not surprising either.  But the fact is to find the most successful Bible-based films requires going back, like Allen says, more than a half century. The top three: “The Ten Commandments” (1956), “Ben Hur” (1959) and “The Robe” (1953) are all from Hollywood’s Golden era.

However, the most successful Bible-based television production is from recent history. And that’s where Burnett and Downey are proving something that the film industry is only starting to understand: That faith based consumers seem to like faith-based producers. Burnett and Downey’s series “The Bible” garnered some 100 million viewers on cable TV. The finale alone on Easter Sunday attracted 12 million viewers.

Phil Cooke, a filmmaker and media consultant says after the success of “The Bible” series he was contacted by a slew of secular news outlets all baffled as to why people would want to watch a series on the Bible. He said, “TV networks for years have bent over backwards to reach special interest groups. What they forget is that [Bible believing] Christians make up the largest special interest group in the nation. And if you produce a biblically accurate program, they will watch.”

But Baehr isn’t convinced the faith of the producer makes a difference. He cites the movie “Chariots of Fire,” the 1981 Academy Award winning film about Olympic runner Eric Liddell, a devout Scottish Christian who ran for the glory of God. Baehr points out that the film “…was funded by a Muslim, produced by a Jew, written by an Atheist and starred a gay man. And yet it inspired millions to come to faith.”

He says, “Judge the product, not who produced it.”

Even Cooke admits that part of Burnett and Downey’s success is their ability to be their own public relations team. “They do a brilliant job of reaching out to the Christian communities, touring churches, and major Christian conferences. While other entertainment outlets produce stuff and just put it out there.”

That makes a difference.

Burnett is the successful producer behind television’s “Survivor” series as well as “The Voice” and other shows. While Downey, an actress, is best known for her role on the TV series “Touched by an Angel.”  They are both evangelical Christians and make no apologies for it. At a dinner this week in New York City to raise money for a major Christian event coming to the city this summer, Burnett and Downey were the featured speakers. The two touted that they are the most outspoken Christians in Hollywood, and that they’ve never been shy about telling the world what they believe.

But success is a greatest seducer. And it was NBC that approached Burnett with the offer of presenting their next project. Burnett gleams that “A.D.” has enjoyed a major ad campaign on a broadcast television network, telling the crowd at this week’s event that “A.D.” is being promoted as if it were the Super Bowl or the Academy Awards. That’s what profit will do in an industry that thrives on the almighty dollar.

However, Downey and Burnett say that regardless of what the network or anyone else believes, they give credit of their triumph to a higher power. Downey says, “The real star of the show is the Holy Spirit.”

That part is left out of the network’s marketing campaign.

Lauren Green currently serves as Fox News Channel’s (FNC) chief religion correspondent based in the New York bureau. She joined FNC in 1996.

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