The cable networks have found religion.
History has a hit with The Bible, Showtime is visiting The Vatican, Lifetime is keeping tabs on Preachers’ Daughters, GSN has a Bible-themed game show, and several channels (TLC, Discovery Channel, National Geographic) have sparked to the Amish. And that’s just for starters.
"Faith has always been a big part of American culture, and I think the majority of Americans are believers and attend church, so it’s not like that is a new trend," says Rob Sharenow, executive vp programming at Lifetime Networks. "But in terms of programming, there have been several things that just seem to be popping right now. It feels kind of natural to me. This is a something that a lot of people understand and believe, and they like to see that reflected in the context of movies and TV shows."
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Lifetime recently debuted the reality show Preachers’ Daughters — whose second episode saw a 13 percent increase in viewers (1.7 million) and a 39 percent increase among adults 18-49 (936,000 viewers) from last week’s premiere — on the heels of two movies timed to coincide with Black History Month: the original movie Twist of Faith, an interfaith love story starring Toni Braxton, and Pastor Brown, starring Salli Richardson-Whitfield (Eureka) as a young woman who takes over the family church.
"In most cases, we are drawn to the story and material, and the fact that there were faith-based messages and elements [in the two movies] was part of what made the stories interesting and unique," Sharenow says. "Great stories draw audiences, and having faith-based or religious elements is something people are drawn to."
Indeed, the March 3 premiere of miniseries The Bible gave Lifetime’s corporate sibling History its best viewership figures since last summer’s juggernaut mini, Hatfields & McCoys, in total viewers (13.1 million) and adults 25-54 (4.6 million), ranking as the year’s top entertainment program on cable this year. The second episode also performed big, with 10.9 million total viewers and 4.2 million in the demo (the mini concludes on Easter Sunday, March 31).
Neither History executive vp development and programming Dirk Hoogstra nor Mark Burnett, who created and executive produced the mini with wife Roma Downey, was surprised it has become such a hit.
"We had a really good feeling that it would do big numbers for us because we’ve done religious specials and documentary programs and events in the past, and they tend to do really well for us," Hoogstra says. "We knew the subject area [was of interest to] our viewers and beyond."
When planning the marketing, there was a concerted effort to try to reach "as broad an audience as possible," Hoogstra adds, arguing that the stories have resonance even with non-believers and also will continue to resonate for years to come.
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For National Geographic Channel, too, shows centering on religious topics and themes are actually nothing new, says executive vp programming Michael Cascio.
"I find the idea of some kind of trend amusing because we’ve been doing it for so long," he says.
Cascio cites such programs as 2006’s The Gospel of Judas through the upcoming special Jesus: Rise to Power, which airs at 8 p.m. March 28 after having been "in the works for many years," as examples.
"These are topics that resonate for our audience and have been resonating for a number of years," he says, adding: "It resonates because people either find it aspirational and want to live like that, or they don’t but find it fascinating to see how other people live, and that’s what good, factual programming does."