About 3.7 million people tuned in to watch Bill O’Reilly’s Killing Jesus on the National Geographic Channel last Sunday—the most ever to watch a show on the network, and a 300% improvement on NatGeo’s typical Sunday-night ratings. It was a success. But it wasn’t a surprise. Jesus—or, rather, shows predicated on Him—is big business these days.
Christ has been all over TV lately. As National Geographic unveiled Killing Jesus, CNN was busy Finding Jesus. That series, subtitled Faith, Fact, Forgery, premiered on March 1 and was the highest-rated cable news show of the night—welcome (ahem) news for a network that typically lags behind both Fox News and MSNBC in the ratings. But both may be mere warm-up acts to the Easter Season’s biggest television event—the launch of NBC’s A.D. The Bible Continues. The 12-week miniseries begins Easter Sunday with, appropriately enough, a retelling of Jesus’ passion and resurrection.
All three shows, incidentally, were filmed at roughly the same time and place, which led to some surreal scenes when the cameras were off. “You got this kind of Life of Brian-esque world you’re living in, where on all of our days off, there’s 36 disciples sitting around the pool and three Jesuses at the bar,” actor Stephen Moyer, who played Pontius Pilate in Killing Jesus, told The Huffington Post.
Arguably none of those “disciples” would’ve been poolside had it not been for the vision of Mark Burnett and Roma Downey, who two years ago brought The Bible to the History Channel. As Burnett said during a visit to Focus on the Family last month, most TV execs thought at the time that they had “officially lost their minds.”
But when The Bible proved to be one of 2013’s biggest hits—its premiere episode beating even AMC’s ratings Goliath The Walking Dead—the television world saw there might be ratings in religion.
Full disclosure: Focus on the Family has been openly supportive of Burnett and Downey’s Bible-based work, both for The Bible and now for A.D. In his blog post “Is NBC Embracing the Bible?” Focus president Jim Daly says A.D. “takes a deeper look into the Christian story.”
Daly also announced that you’ll be able to see a commercial for Focus on the Family during the telecast. But all that said, this time around it doesn’t seem like the famed Survivor and Voice producer and the Touched by an Angel star need a ton of ministry muscle to make waves with a faith-based miniseries. When these two Hollywood heavyweights approached NBC with the idea for A.D., the response was less “You’ve got to be kidding me” and more “How much do you need?”
The result is a lavish, professional depiction of the early church learning to walk—not broadcast on a basic cable channel best known these days for Ancient Aliens, but NBC—an honest-to-goodness broadcast network. And while “broadcast television” doesn’t have the sway it once did, the distinction still means something to Burnett. And he believes it’s high time that the Bible got some exposure on a wide-reach broadcast network.
“It’s [the story of the Bible] as broad as the nightly news,” he said. “It’s as broad as the NFL. It’s Christianity.” He noted that faith in Jesus Christ isn’t some fringe fanaticism, even if we Christians ourselves sometimes act like it is. It’s the biggest religion in the world and the belief system that the majority of Americans identify with. “This is our story,” Burnett says.
While the first episode of A.D. concentrates on the last few pages of the Gospels, most of the miniseries will focus on the first several chapters of Acts. For me, that’s about the most riveting part of the New Testament—when a handful of plucky believers took on the world’s mightiest empire and their own religious establishment to carry Jesus’ message to the masses.
That, of course, lends itself to drama—and in A.D.’s case, a bit of dramatic license. We’ll publish our review of the first episode next week (in our TV area), but Burnett already admits that not every detail of the miniseries is accurate, to the letter, of what we read in the Bible. He and his wife took pains to set up the historical, political and religious environment found in early A.D. years, unpacking the motivations of the many factions vying for influence. Some biblical stories have been shuffled a bit, and the cast itself is purposefully multicultural, representing more than a dozen different countries. The diverse cast is meant to stress that God’s Word is meant for everyone. And while the changes surely won’t be the wholesale reworking we saw in the movies Noah or Exodus: Gods and Kings, Burnett and Downey are aware that Christians deeply concerned with absolute scriptural fidelity may not like what they see.
But, Burnett adds, the show’s purpose is not to replace or even retell the Bible, but rather introduce it to people who don’t know much about it—and to, hopefully, funnel curious TV watchers to their local church. “It’s the job of the church to untie the fishing knots,” Burnett says.
And if A.D. proves to be a success, he says, there may be more in the future. After all, there’s a lot of Scriptural acts left to play out when this miniseries concludes, and NBC just might be willing to host a second season.
God’s message is eternal and unchanging, as relevant today as it was 2,000 years ago. Television is not so all-encompassing. But as long as the Good News is good business, we can expect to see more faith-based programming—some of it for better, some of it for worse—in the coming years.