TV's Slow Spiritual Progress

The television industry often defends its objectionable fare by insisting it is only a) reflecting reality or b) supplying market demand. At times this is true, though an explanation does not a justification make. But neither line can explain why the networks continue to ignore the topic of religion. And two studies released during Holy Week document the degree to which Hollywood has lost touch completely with the public on this issue.

The first study was the fourth annual "Faith in a Box" issued by the Parents Television Council. Some of the findings: Last year, there were 436 treatments - anything from a quip to a plotline - of religion on the broadcast networks (ABC, CBS, Fox, NBC, UPN, and WB). The good news is that when you compare this to 1993 (116 treatments), there has been a near-fourfold increase in religious content. The bad news is that out of more than 1,800 hours of original programming, 436 treatments still is virtually nothing.

The overall '96 ratio of positive to negative portrayals was just under 2 to 1 positive (40 to 21 percent). For three consecutive years positive depictions have outnumbered negatives; the '93 ratio was 3 to 2 negative. But does any of this reflect reality in a society where, according to national surveys, 91 percent of the public considers its faith in God to be of extraordinary importance?

As a rule, religion is depicted in a favorable light only if it's within the context of a simple expression of faith - a prayer, for instance - and the more specific the depiction, the more negative it becomes. Take, for example, portrayals of the clergy. The study found in 32 percent of the cases, they were shown in a positive light; 26 percent of the time they were attacked. An accurate reflection of the public mood?

What about the religious laity? Here the numbers became wholly obnoxious: By a factor of 4 to 1, network television presents lay religious people in a purely negative light. Maybe that's how Hollywood views them, but it is the antithesis of the public mood.

In general, believers as psychotics are the norm, normal believers the exception. Bible-quoting criminals were found on many drama series in '96, including NBC's "Law and Order" (twice), CBS's "Nash Bridges" and "Walker, Texas Ranger," and UPN's now-canceled "Nowhere Man." Why, unless simply to deride religion? Considering that society holds priests, nuns, ministers, rabbis - and the average Joe who believes in God - in extremely high esteem, these depictions of men and women of God are not fair. They are insulting.

It's disappointing that, given the success of CBS's "Touched By an Angel," the networks haven't tried airing a slew of faith-friendly offerings. There's the "Angel" spinoff "Promised Land," but not much else. WB's "7th Heaven" centers on a minister, his wife, and their children, but it's essentially a standard-issue family drama, the patriarch's occupation notwithstanding.

OK, so prime time doesn't reflect reality where religion is concerned. Is Hollywood, then, doing this to satisfy a public demand - its other constant explanation? The same week "Faith in a Box" was released, TV Guide issued its own 20-page special report, "God and Television," and tore that myth to shreds in a national survey.

To the question, "How much attention does religion get on prime time TV?" less than a third thought it was "the right amount"; more than half (56 percent) said "not enough." The survey delved deeper and uncovered the public's passion on this issue: 61 percent want to see more references to God; 68 percent want more prime time spirituality; 82 percent want more coverage of moral issues.

Almost three out of four people believe that in the past five years, prime time has become a "less moral, spiritual, and religious universe." It's a particularly puzzling development considering, as academic Jack Miles notes in a sidebar piece, that "people are eager for TV to reflect their spiritual lives. And advertisers should be reminded that many, many millions of people?go to church. ..There's a huge market of religious viewers [for television] to tap into."

Hollywood, with the millions of dollars it spends on its own research, knows this. Still it refuses to deliver. At what point does it cross the line where hostility becomes bigotry?