Prime Time Religion: The Continuing Schism

Prime Time Religion: The Continuing Schism
by L. Brent Bozell III
April 21, 1998

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 hostility?

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 faith.