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A LOOK BACK AT
TELEVISION AD 1997


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This page was last updated on June 5, 2005


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Prime Time

by Joe Costantino
from the Plain Truth Magazine.
Used by permission.

"Is There Hope for Hollywood?"
For the first time in 40 years, an overtly religious TV program with a Christian worldview is in TV's top 10. Touched by an Angel has been the new hit of the year. And it's not alone.

A quick check of the TV listings now shows that at least in terms of network television, the answer might be "Yes" and "Wow, quite a lot!"

In a phenomenon that has received surprisingly little attention in the Christian community, God has returned to prime-time TV in force, and with more people watching than anytime since Bishop Fulton J. Sheen went up against Uncle Miltie (Milton Berle) in the 1950s.

For the first time in 40 years, an overtly religious TV program with a Christian worldview is in TV's top 10. Touched by an Angel has been the new hit of the year. And it's not alone. CBS's Promised Land and WB's 7th Heaven also give Christians reason to hope that television can be more than a vast secular
wasteland.

"The inscription over the Gates of Hell in Dante's Divine Comedy reads: 'Abandon hope all ye that enter here.' A lot of people think that might as well be the inscription above the gateway to Hollywood. Don't believe it."
-- Martha Williamson, executive producer, Touched by an Angel

Faith can be shown as a positive influence in people's lives. Audiences seem to welcome the change.

CBS had such success with Touched by an Angel that it moved it to Sunday evenings following 60 Minutes, with spectacular results.

Executive producer Martha Williamson also generated a spin-off series, Promised Land. After a family is touched by the angels and their Boss, they travel around the country helping people in times of crisis.

The Camdens: Spelling Relief on WB

Another example of Christianity in prime time appears on the fledgling WB network. Each week, you can watch the exceptionally charming Camden family sort out their troubles with love and mutual respect on 7th Heaven. Stephen Collins plays the Rev. Eric Camden, a pastor and father of five in a surprisingly functional household.

Perhaps one of the biggest surprises of each hour is in the credits when the names Aaron Spelling and Duke Vincent roll by. We have come to associate those producers' names with Melrose Place and the steamy Savannah, which was canceled after only one season. But it was the suggestion of Spelling and WB's chief executive officer Jamie Kellner that Camden's job be church pastor.

With the exception of the Ned Flanders family on The Simpsons, it's rare to see regular church attendance on network TV. 7th Heaven creator and co-executive producer Brenda Hampton says, "I could be wrong [laughing], but I think there are plenty of normal people across the country going to church."

Sometimes funny and sometimes touching, episodes have dealt with crime, alcohol abuse and death in the family. In a memorable episode, a neighboring African-American church is burned and the Camden family and their congregation pitch in to support their neighbors, confronting their own prejudices in the process. It was a moving hour of television, addressing a critical national issue.

The only dark cloud on the horizon is that relatively few viewers seem to have discovered 7th Heaven on WB. Tell your friends about it. It's worth supporting.

Martha's Angels

When I first heard the title Touched by an Angel makes explicitly clear that God loves us and has a plan for our lives. We need to reach out to him. He is eagerly awaiting our response. He shares our sorrows. He can't wait to show us his love.

Williamson has been true to her word. Episodes have dealt with difficult issues like suffering, religious con artists, the purpose of miracles, adultery, abuse and
even grace vs. works.

The Limits of Commercial TV

Prime-time television, of course, does not belong to any particular religion or denomination. We are all tempted to demand that depictions of religion in the media endorse our particular views. A moment's reflection tells us that we can't expect that of network TV. As the price of its very existence, it has to please a wide variety of people. It exists to advertise, entertain and, on a good day, educate and inspire.

The particularly Christian aspects of Touched by an Angel are expressed not in direct language, but by paraphrased biblical passages that Christians will have no trouble recognizing. Viewers who are not familiar with the Bible just think of them as wise words from "somewhere." In one episode, a character learns that he is saved by grace, not by works, when his efforts to keep track of his good deeds fail to win God's favor. He finally responds to the hints given to him by the angels that he can't build his own stairway to heaven.

The lesson is eloquently taught without using religious language. Yet the inability to get too explicit is the factor that may leave some people grumbling that Williamson is serving up a watered-down gospel. Is that fair?

Is Martha Williamson supposed to preach the gospel in its entirety on prime-time TV? Is that something Christians think is CBS's job?

A prime-time producer is doing well if she can touch her audience's hearts. She is doing even better if she can make them think. And she deserves our gratitude and enthusiastic prayers if she is successful in making them think about God.

Prime-time network TV is probably not the likely place for evangelism proper. But how many Christians would have guessed that it could be such a successful place for preevangelism? The ratings say that about 14 percent of American households tune in to Touched by an Angel every week. At best, 1.5 percent tune in to the most-watched religious programs.

Touched by an Angel wouldn't have survived its first season if not for the support of loyal viewers who wrote to CBS to ask them to save the show. CBS obliged, and as word spread, the ratings grew. Remember Christy? The Christian fans of that show weren't as successful in keeping it on the air. Perhaps we Christians are learning a lesson.

We don't hesitate to complain when TV networks serve up unwelcome helpings of sex and violence. Perhaps we should thank them when they do well.

Williamson says that she writes from the heart and that she expects her stories to draw a tear or two each week. She says that the crying usually starts when one of the angels says, "God loves you."

Williamson receives many touching letters from viewers. This one came from a prisoner in Nashville, Tennessee:

"I just wanted to let you know you have made a major impact on those that watch from behind prison walls. Each Saturday evening there comes a certain 'hush' in this room. Mostly, inmates are society's rejects. Many go years and never hear an 'I love you.' But each week, I've noticed your scripts always manage to include the message that God loves each of us and we are important to Him. In an entire lifetime of words, goals, and accomplishments, I'm not sure there's any contribution more important. Thanks to people like you and the messages of love, hope, and faith, there will never be enough darkness to put out the light."

In prime-time TV as in life, it is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness.

TV's Junk Food Junkies

The reason God on prime time is a big deal is that most TV has not been friendly to Christian values for a long time. There is still a lot of toxic TV.

Even the "family hour" is full of sexual innuendo and adult themes. Sex is often casual, lying is merely a joke, and every taboo is a target.

Of course, to make a story, you must have good guys, bad guys and some conflict. No one would tune in to watch people "making nice" every day. But is there a point to the conflict? Do we see the devastation caused by murder, adultery and promiscuous sex?

If we do, perhaps we're just seeing the modern version of storytelling that has been around from time immemorial, and there is nothing to get excited about. But if not, then perhaps we are seeing the values that define us undermined by the storytellers.

Blaming TV's writers and producers is too easy an out. We have to look deeper. Nobody seems to want to say it, but the reason sleaze and evil gets on the air is that a lot of us watch it. If the public rejected programs that reject Christian values, such programs would no longer exist. Our neighbors, friends, relatives and sometimes we ourselves empower trash by buying it.

There is a reason TV programmers react cynically to calls for "quality programming." The unfortunate track record is that when networks stick their necks out and try to put something educational or family oriented on the air, audiences often ignore it. As a "TV nation," we get pretty much what we deserve, and what we ask for.

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