CBS Keeps Its Eye on the Sky

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 of television.

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 figure.)

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, with 55.

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 kennel."

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.