Audiences connect with faith-based TV programs

Imagine, if you can, a reality-based dating game show. But this wouldn’t be like “The Bachelor” or “The Bachelorette” or even “The Dating Game.”

No implied sexual encounters, no on-camera make-out sessions, no double entendres turning the air blue and the viewers red. This would be a dating show you could watch with your grandmother, because it would be a lot like the way she could have met your grandfather.

The Game Show Network has such a show in development. The show, called “It Takes a Church,” would have a group of people from the players’ churches — people who know them and share their beliefs and values — screen possible dates and try to set the players up with people who they think will be good for them.

The network came up with the idea for a faith-based dating show after finding unexpected success with “The American Bible Challenge,” a Bible-based quiz show in which teams of contestants battle to see who knows their Bible best, with all proceeds going to charity. Among the contestants have been groups from mainline Protestant and evangelical churches, as well as Catholics — including a team of Dominican Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist (sidebar) — and a Jewish team.

“The American Bible Challenge” debuted in August as the highest-rated original program in Game Show Network history, a status it has maintained, and it added a new wrinkle in April with the announcement of a “fan favorite” competition, in which viewers can vote for their favorite teams. The winning team will receive an additional $10,000 for its charity. The winner was to be announced on the show’s May 23 finale.

Finding a niche

The trend also follows the success of the History Channel’s “The Bible.” The 10-hour docudrama had 13.1 million viewers for its first episode — beating Fox’s “American Idol” in its timeslot — and 11.7 million viewers for its final episode Easter Sunday, and was the top-rated cable entertainment program of the year so far, according to Nielsen.

The trend for more faith-based content on mainstream, nonsectarian media will likely hold for at least a while longer, media experts say, because it comes at the convergence of several universe-changing media trends, which include the more fragmented audience, greater access to the airwaves and cable box, and declining costs for television production.

“Nothing spreads wilder on TV than success,” said Christine Becker, an associate professor of film, television and theater at the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Ind. “The TV executives look at their spreadsheets and the ratings and say, ‘It’s a trend.’”

But with the decline of the broadcast networks and the multiplication of digital, cable and satellite channels, shows don’t have to win as many viewers as they once did to be considered a success, she said. Instead, television producers can aim their shows at narrower demographics and not worry about appealing to a mass audience. If they resonate with their niche audiences, and manage to appeal to a few others as well, then they are considered successful.

In the case of “The Bible,” she said, a combination of “fundamentally good storytelling,” good production values and an appeal to Christian audiences went a long way toward making sure the ratings stories were positive.

Drop in production costs

D. Joel Whalen, director of curriculum for the Sales Leadership Program and an associate professor in the marketing department at DePaul University, said the basic equation of television programming — audience equals money — hasn’t changed. But now, he said, you can make money with a smaller audience because it doesn’t cost anywhere near as much to broadcast on a smaller cable channel, and the cost of staff and production equipment has dropped precipitously.

“Now you can edit a television show on an Apple computer instead of needing a million dollars worth of equipment,” he said. “Look at some of these very small sports that get broadcast, or tiny aspects of home improvement.”

Also, he said, Internet broadcasting has opened the gates to anyone who wants to try to find an audience, which has allowed many people to demonstrate that people will watch the programs if given the chance. In previous decades, a relatively small group of TV executives decided what got put on the air.

But the drive to smaller audiences and lower costs will have to level out at some point, he said.

“Christ said, ‘Wherever two or three are gathered in my name,’ but I think you need a few more than that,” Whalen said. “You can’t broadcast to one person.”

Good entertainment

David Schiff, GSN’s senior vice president for programming and development, said the roots of the movement to more faith-based programming are more basic than the changes in the broadcasting industry would suggest.

The Bible show
Diogo Morgado portrays Christ in a scene from the television miniseries “The Bible,” which drew large audiences to The History Channel earlier this year. CNS photo/courtesy of the History Channel

“I think it’s that Hollywood has woken up to the fact that there are many states between Hollywood and New York,” Schiff said, and people in those states want good entertainment.

In the past, he said, there was a feeling that any programming that dealt with religion in a positive way “had to be stodgy, had to be boring.”

When it developed “The American Bible Challenge,” GSN went to Jeff Foxworthy, the comedian of “You might be a redneck if …” fame, because he not only was public about being a man of faith, he was a proven quiz-show commodity after hosting “Are You Smarter than a 5th Grader?” which was produced from 2007-09. It was, incidentally, produced by Mark Burnett, who also produced “The Bible.”

It also welcomed teams of all faiths, but for the sake of consistency based all questions on the New International Version of the Bible. Anyone, believers or not, can answer questions about what is in the Bible, he said.

“Nobody can deny the power and importance of this book in so many hundreds of millions of people’s lives,” Schiff said.

And no one can deny how many people find a home in their churches, people that they trust and whose values they share and understand. That’s why he thinks “It Takes a Church” will also succeed.

“I think that’s still how a lot of people meet,” he said. “It’s people who say, there’s someone you should meet. We all sort of identify with that. It’s very relatable.” 

Michelle Martin writes from Illinois.