Is TV about to get Religion

Another Easter season has come and gone, with the usual flurry of religion stories on newsstands, religious images on TV screens and more research reports asking why elite media tend to ignore, botch or bash religion the rest of the year.

"God on prime-time television is like God in American culture: submerged most of the time, emerging only as a guest star whose appearance is rarely announced," stated Jack Miles, author of "God: A Biography," in TV Guide's "God and Television" cover story.

This statement actually illustrates the problem. It's unlikely that any pollster or politician would agree that religion's power is "submerged" in American life. Out in fly-over country, religion tends to sit right out in the open. If religion is a sub-plot in the American drama, it's because folks in Los Angeles and New York rarely aim cameras at it.

This can been seen in the data in what has become another rite of spring - the conservative Media Research Center's "Faith in a Box" research report. Last year, the center's content-analysis team found a mere 436 references to faith - anything from a punch line to a plot line - in the commercial broadcast networks' entertainment offerings. Still, the numbers have risen nearly 400 percent in four years.

"The good news is that shows like 'Touched by an Angel,' 'Promised Land,' '7th Heaven' and others depict religion and faith positively," said actor Dean Jones, in a Los Angeles press conference statement. "The bad news ... is that nearly seven out of 10 laypeople -- people like me -- are portrayed negatively on prime-time television."

TV Guide says viewers want to see more religion and "moral" messages, with 56 percent of the adults polled saying that faith does not receive enough attention in prime time. Turning the question around, 68 percent said they wanted to see more "spirituality" - as opposed to specific "organized religions" - on television.

So why don't they? For years, most conservative critics have pointed to a wealth of poll data indicating that media gatekeepers are either ignorant or apathetic about religion, or biased against traditional religion and strongly religious people. However, I'm convinced at least three other factors are also at work.

* Perhaps religion is too complex. Many of religion's most powerful images and themes are rooted in intricate beliefs held by those in specific sets of pews. The more profound the belief, the more likely it is to be jargon to outsiders. It would, for example, be hard to stop the flow of an apocalyptic drama and explain the mind-numbing distinctions between conservative Protestant doctrines about the end of the world. That would even be hard on the "X-Files" or "Millennium."

* Perhaps Hollywood's brand of religion doesn't play in Peoria. Most religion on television centers on inspiring stories that tug at the heart strings, while avoiding all doctrinal ties that bind. This may appeal to many, but it also offends millions of viewers whose beliefs are rock solid. Vague or modernized doctrine is still doctrine. Thus, it's hard to appeal to New Agers and Southern Baptists at the same time. An inspiring story about a female rabbi will appeal to many Jews, but make others furious.

* Perhaps conservatives don't walk their talk. After all, researcher George Barna and others have noted that media habits in households that claim to be highly religious aren't radically different from their more secular counterparts. Legions of Christian consumers who claim to want uplifting dramas about missionaries may, in reality, prefer to watch "Friends," Disney, MTV and the Atlanta Braves with everyone else. Odds are that the media lives of folks in households that each contain four TVs and VCRs -- one for Mom, Dad, Johnny and Jane -- are going to be similar whether the occupants are agnostics or born again.

Perhaps the best answer is "all of the above," or some other unsettling combination of these factors. But stay tuned, because debates about ratings and religion will heat up soon. TV Guide ended its report by noting that "Hollywood now has at least four new shows about angels, spirits and ministers in the pipeline for next season."