Prime Time Religion: The Continuing Schism
by L. Brent Bozell III
Much has been written of late regarding entertainment
television's Great Semi-Awakening, the surge in religious content in the
middle and late 1990s. It's less than meets the eye.
For the past five years, the Media Research Center has
released an annual analysis of prime time network television's handling of
religion. In quantitative terms the growth is most definitely there. The MRC's
first report, covering 1993, noted there were 116 treatments, defined as
anything from a one-liner to a plotline, on prime time. By 1997, that number
had soared to 551.
So why the near-fivefold increase? The pivotal event was the
1994 debut of CBS's "Touched By an Angel." Despite numerous pre-emptions,
despite a change in its time slot, and despite a temporary removal from the
schedule, the drama survived (barely) and was renewed for a second season.
Then "Angel" exploded into a massive hit, and in
its wake followed a spinoff, "Promised Land," which, while not
featuring celestial beings, nonetheless was unambiguously pro-faith. And there
were others: WB's drama "7th Heaven" and ABC's comedy "Soul
Man," each about a minister and his family. Sadly, there also was ABC's
obnoxious "Nothing Sacred," which reminds us that in Hollywood,
"religion" doesn't necessarily mean reverence.
Even by Hollywood's standards "Nothing Sacred" was
offensive. The MRC study explores prime time's handling of religion in
four major categories: 1) expressions of faith; 2) religious institutions and
doctrines; 3) the clergy; and 4) the laity. In the first category - faith --
the depictions always tend to be overwhelmingly positive. Where religious
institutions and doctrines are concerned, the same rule - show respect - also
is the norm in Hollywood, albeit in somewhat reduced numbers. "Nothing
Sacred," on the other hand, was a blatant, ongoing assault on the
doctrines of one religious institution, the Roman Catholic Church.
When all four categories are tabulated, one finds almost
twice as many positive as negative religious portrayals in 1997. Combine that
with the quintupling in the number of treatments over five years and things
are good, right? Well, not quite, as a closer examination reveals.
I suspect there isn't a segment of American society held in
higher esteem by the public than men of the cloth, but Hollywood apparently
doesn't agree. Remarkably, only 32 percent of depictions of the clergy were
positive; 28 percent were negative. So anything positive said by or about a
priest, minister, or rabbi then was basically matched by an attack.
Even more appalling is that for every positive portrayal of
a lay religious figure, there were ten negative ones. Other than perhaps
neo-Nazis and the KKK, can you name for me another group that gets 10-1
negative treatment by Hollywood?
And where the total number of treatments - 551 -- is
concerned, consider that they were found over approximately 1,800 hours of
prime time programming. That's one treatment - maybe just a whisper -- every
3.3 hours of programming on average. In short, religion is barely on
Hollywood's radar screen, a fact that flies squarely in the face of a recent
survey by the Pew Research Center, which found that 72 percent of the
population has an "absolutely certain" belief in God.
The situation is gloomier than the overall numbers indicate
in that they represent only occasions on which religious content is explicit,
not pronouncements or behavior that contradict an unstated religious doctrine
or belief. When X sleeps with Y on "Melrose Place," they don't talk
about how they're defying Judeo-Christian tenets. Hollywood's religion isn't
religion; it's a sex-obsessed assault on religious tradition.
Some "religious shows" seldom deal substantively
with religion. "7th Heaven," for example, is a good, life-affirming
family drama on which Dad happens to be a minister. Now, there's something
refreshing about religion being portrayed as a normal, unremarkable part of
the everyday prime time landscape. But since television has historically
slighted faith, wouldn't it be a welcome development to find a more open and
frequent (and positive) discussion of religion to counter the neglect and
Finally, the wide divergence among the networks is
noteworthy. CBS, unsurprisingly, had four positive religious depictions for
every negative, and ABC finished with a 1.8-1 ratio. But Fox wound up with
slightly less than one positive for every negative depiction, and Must See NBC
came in even worse. In other words, two of the four full-time webs are
teaching youngsters that religion is, on balance, a bad influence.
Bottom line: Things are better, but there's still a long way
to go before Hollywood can say it reflects society on matters of religious
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