Here’s a can’t-miss TV concept:
Outcast renegades battle brutal rulers trying to snuff out their freedom uprising. After the despots lethally torture the rebels’ magnetic leader, his ragtag followers find mystical new inspiration to advance their pursuit of human rights, compassion and forgiveness.
Could be a sci-fi/fantasy cult favorite. Maybe a graphic historical actioner. Or a philosophical character study.
It’s the Bible.
And it’s trending big in TV today, with programmers racing to adapt/explore a book hundreds of years old, still ardently read, widely inspirational, much discussed, often controversial. As feature films go mad for remakes, TV taps a broader franchise — one with which nearly all Americans are familiar and which most of them revere.
On Palm Sunday, no fewer than six cable channels will spotlight Bible programs. That includes two much-hyped docu-drama premieres. NatGeo’s “Killing Jesus” stars Kelsey Grammer and Stephen Moyer in a three-hour filming of the Bill O’Reilly-Martin Dugard book, while CNN presents the next-to-last installment of its six-week artifact investigation series, “Finding Jesus: Faith. Fact. Forgery.”
Broadcast networks join the bandwagon as Passover approaches Friday, debuting big-dollar religious dramatizations. CBS’ Tuesday-Wednesday miniseries adaptation “The Dovekeepers” depicts the siege of Masada with popular former “NCIS” star Cote de Pablo, while NBC uses Easter Sunday to launch its own 12-week series of post-Christ stories, “A.D.: The Bible Continues.” Spanish-language network Telemundo has its own Holy Week event: “La Biblia,” its translation of History’s hit miniseries “The Bible.”
That’s the “A.D.” precursor that kick-started the trend by attracting more than 100 million viewers total in 2013. The “Bible” finale airing that Easter Sunday drew nearly 12 million alone, besting TV’s top-rated series, AMC’s “The Walking Dead,” in head-to-head competition.
Wait, God vs. zombies? And God wins!
“People (in the TV industry) saw how those went through the roof. And when something works, everybody wants to do it,” says Marc Berman, editor-in-chief of the daily industry report TVMediaInsights.com. “It takes somebody to take the first step,” says Berman. “Mark Burnett had a huge success, and now it’s suddenly the hot ticket.”
“Survivor” producer Burnett and his wife, Roma Downey, who starred in CBS’ faith-based modern drama “Touched by an Angel,” speak openly in Hollywood about their Christian faith — and their production company, LightWorkers Media, has made the three most elaborate Bible-era dramatizations so far: “The Bible,” “A.D.” and “Dovekeepers.” Berman notes that while TV programmers might expect religious subject matter to seem dry and dull, it doesn’t have to be. “The way they did it — well-written, well-produced, not sitting in Bible class — they proved it can be exciting.”
The “entertainment industry’s It Couple for religious programming” (says DeadlineHollywood.com) further fueled their hype at TV critics’ January press tour by equating “A.D.” to big-time hits from other genres. Burnett called it “‘Game of Thrones’ meets the Bible,” tapping the cutting-edge appeal of HBO’s fantasy-kingdoms smash. He also invoked an acclaimed Netflix political saga: “It’s like taking ‘House of Cards’ and dropping it into the first century in Jerusalem.” Downey touted the cast representing 15 countries, because “we wanted people to be able to turn on the television set and see themselves in this story.”
The faithful have always found ways to appeal to television’s mainstream audience. One of TV’s first superstars, in the medium’s low-budget launch after World War II, was New York Bishop Fulton Sheen. A charismatic speaker who gave proto-Oprah Winfrey spiritual lectures in the network prime-time series “Life Is Worth Living” (1951-57), Sheen drew up to 30 million viewers weekly. (Six decades later, his program continues to repeat, Saturdays at 6 p.m. on cable channel EWTN.)
The tumult of the ‘60s soon made explicit religion less of a TV attraction, while preachers like Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell soon built personal pulpits in syndication and cable. As they broadened into political controversy, risk-averse broadcasters found success portraying nondenominational faith through fictional lenses in contemporary “crisis” dramas — hence the guardians-from-above in Michael Landon’s “Highway to Heaven” (NBC, 1984-89) and Downey’s “Touched by an Angel” (CBS, 1994-2003).
Today’s productions are more overtly religious, yet often tap successful TV genres and newer source material for broader appeal. “The Dovekeepers” is adapted from the bestseller by Alice Hoffman. Ditto Sunday’s “Killing Jesus,” cowritten by high-rated commentator O’Reilly. Even on news-driven CNN, the fact-based series “Finding Jesus” savvily employs “history mystery” investigation elements, while illustrating with actors in scenic re-creations set to dramatic music. Its academic experts speak in juicy sound bites (”the ominous stench of death breathing down”). That approach has quadrupled CNN’s Sunday night ratings.
Contemporary settings are big in TV movies like TV One’s Easter weekend premiere “To Hell and Back,” starring “Ghostbuster” Ernie Hudson. The tale of a generous man beset by a litany of woes through which he loses everything, yet maintains his faith, “It’s very, very directly based on the book of Job, and we tell people it is,” says TV One president Brad Siegel. Yet this modern version involves lawsuits and car wrecks, so “if you didn’t know the book of Job, it wouldn’t matter,” says Siegel. “If you are a person of faith, you’re going to be even more inspired to watch. But it won’t turn off anybody who’s not of faith.” The story line neatly covers black-aimed TV One’s three pillars of faith, family and community, with a fourth perhaps being Hudson’s star power. Siegel notes TV One’s upcoming Mother’s Day faith film, “The Book of Ruth,” pairs Loretta Devine and James Pickens in a cast reunion to delight fans of the ABC hit “Grey’s Anatomy.”
Such multipronged appeal may explain why the Bible is now being mined so feverishly by broadcast networks like CBS and NBC. In today’s niche-dominated multichannel universe, they still signify a broad-based gathering place for all kinds of viewers.
Including those sponsor-coveted young adults, says ratings-minder Berman. “When that ‘Game of Thrones’ kind of historical, epic storytelling gets a lot of attention,” he says, “then you can make it Bible-themed. And suddenly you have something that’s really going to resonate all around.”
That’s the hope in which TV programmers now place their faith.
BIBLE DRAMATIZATIONS (All times Eastern)
“Killing Jesus” (NatGeo, Sunday 8-11). Miniseries adapts Bill O’Reilly’s book, with Kelsey Grammer as Herod the Great, Stephen Moyer as Pontius Pilate, Haaz Sleiman as Jesus.
“La Biblia” (Telemundo, concludes Monday-Friday at 8 p.m.). Spanish-language version of 2013 History hit “The Bible.”
The Dovekeepers (CBS, Tuesday-Wednesday 9-11 p.m.). Cote de Pablo stars in siege-of-Masada miniseries, from a novel by Franklin Square-raised Adelphi graduate Alice Hoffman.
“The Bible” (History, Saturday 2 p.m.-midnight). Original 2013 miniseries in English.
“To Hell and Back” (TV One, Saturday at 8 p.m.) Ernie Hudson as a businessman tormented by Satan in modern-day story of Job.
“A.D.: The Bible Continues” (NBC, series debuts Easter Sunday at 9 p.m.) “The Bible” producers Mark Burnett and Roma Downey continue past the crucifixion, with multi cultural cast.
“Finding Jesus: Faith. Fact. Forgery” (CNN, Sunday and next Sunday night at 9; marathon Saturday 7 p.m.-midnight). Docuseries investigates historic artifacts, interpretations.
“Top 10: Bible Weather” (Weather, Sunday at 6). Biblical floods, other phenomena are compared with current occurrences.
“Biblical Mysteries Explained” (American Heroes, Sunday 6-9). Examining Sodom and Gomorrah, Exodus, “lost” gospels.
“Biblical Conspiracies” (Science, Sunday at 7). Series examines recent artifact discoveries.
“Secrets of the Bible” (American Heroes, Sunday at 9; marathon next Sunday 9 a.m.-10 p.m.). Encores of just-concluded season.
“Siege of Masada” (Smithsonian, Sunday at 10, Monday at 8 p.m.) Special visits mountain fortress dramatized in “The Dovekeepers.”
ALSO: “Bible Hunters” (Smithsonian, Monday 9-11 p.m.); “The Bible’s Greatest Secrets” (AHC, Saturday 4 p.m.-next Sunday at 9 a.m.)
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