CBS Keeps Its Eye on the Sky
by L. Brent Bozell III
In its March 29 issue, TV Guide
released a fascinating survey which finds, among other things, that more
than two-thirds of Americans would like to see increased religious content
on prime time television. At the same time, CBS, the network currently doing
the best job by far serving spiritually minded viewers, is surging in the
Nielsen ratings. Coincidence?
If you think so, please explain
this other coincidence: CBS's comeback is powered by "Touched By an
Angel," prime time's most faith-friendly program. On March 9,
"Angel," now in its third season, earned its highest rating ever
and was the top-rated drama of the week, not just on CBS but in all
Unsurprisingly, two-thirds of
respondents to the TV Guide poll chose "Angel" as the most
spiritual show on the air. Moreover, half of those surveyed named Tess, the
mentor angel played by Della Reese, as not only the character they'd most
like to discuss God with, but also the character they'd most like to have
teach their child's Sunday school class. (Second in both categories was not
Monica, the younger angel played by Roma Downey, but... Jerry Seinfeld. Go
A new Parents Television Council
study on prime time television and religion in 1996 quantifies CBS's
outstanding performance. Last year, that network aired 172 treatments -
anything from a quip to a plotline - dealing with religion. A distant second
was NBC, with only half that number (87). Then came Fox, with 83, and ABC,
CBS also excelled in terms of
quality. Analysts studied the tone of each treatment. Was it favorable
toward religion? Was religion attacked? Was it a mixed bag, or simply
neutral? CBS had 3.2 positive portrayals of religion for each negative
portrayal, edging out ABC, whose ratio was 3.1 to 1. Trailing badly were
NBC, at 1.2 to 1, and Fox, which actually had more negative than positive
depictions of religion (0.95 to 1).
The manner in which CBS is treating
religion today is truly revolutionary. Just five years ago, it would have
been a laughable proposition to imagine a prime time series with a main
character (an angel sent by God, no less!) consistently issuing statements
like, "Faith is the evidence of what you can't see... With God's help,
you can turn judgment into compassion, hate into forgiveness." Today,
that line is typical on "Angel." So successful has the program
become that, next to David Letterman, it may be CBS's most valuable asset.
And, yes, even more valuable than Bryant Gumbel ever will be.
"Angel" isn't the only
CBS show handling religion with the respect it deserves. "Promised
Land," which premiered last fall, centers on the Greenes, a family
which travels America in a motor home, seeking to perform good deeds along
the way. "Promised Land" is a creation of Martha Williamson, the
producer of "Angel," and the Greenes were introduced to the public
on that series in an episode wherein patriarch Russell, just laid off from
his job, prays for guidance. Before long, Tess appears before Russell,
telling him that God has heard his prayers and has a plan for him: the
aforementioned journey. (Both Tess and Monica have dropped in on
"Promised Land" this season to remind the Greenes that their
mission is divinely inspired.)
Still another fall 1996 CBS debut,
"Early Edition," is respectful toward matters of faith.
"Edition" concerns a young man who receives the newspaper one day
before everyone else. At a loss as to why this is happening, he confides in
a blind friend, who suggests that God is involved. "If God can be a
burning bush, He can be anything," she explains. "The world is
full of miracles, Gary. You don't always need eyes to see them."
Not all is perfect at CBS, however.
Its treatment of religion during the May miniseries "A Season in
Purgatory" was a tour de force of Catholic-bashing.
"Purgatory" focused on the wealthy and devoutly Catholic Bradleys,
who lie and bribe to hide a murder committed by a family member. A
non-Bradley character remarks of them with disgust, "They put on a big
churchy act for the world to see, [but] I've seen better morals in a dog
Overall, prime time is approaching
religion more fairly than it did a few years ago, and CBS deserves more
credit than any other network for that turn of events. Let us praise Martha
Williamson, but let us also praise Peter Tortorici, who, when he headed
CBS's entertainment division, fought to put "Touched By an Angel"
on the air and urged Miss Williamson to make the show as proudly pro-faith
as she wanted it to be. Its success bespeaks a belief which started with a
few and has spread to many.
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