“As I understand it, there was an active campaign to cultivate conservative religious leaders,” says Richard Vatz, Towson University professor of communications. “And why not? … I always wondered why so many entrepreneurs write off such a large audience.”

The conversation about the series is steeped in culture-war politics.

A reviewer at the conservative online magazine “American Thinker” writes, “I've read a few of the reviews of the History Channel's first episode of The Bible series that debuted Sunday night. They are not good. My web host, AOL, doesn't even talk about it, although that's not unexpected. AOL/Huffpost are Left secular. Well I watched it last night and I thought it was terrific.”

My critique of the first two hours: It’s grittier-looking than most Bible stories on film, and the special effects aren’t bad. But the leading figures feel like stick figures to me. Part of it is the wooden acting involved in the depiction of characters like the Egyptian pharaoh who didn’t want to let Moses and his people go.

I don’t know if that makes me “Left secular,” mainly because I’m not sure what “Left secular” means.

Robert J. Thompson, Syracuse University professor of popular culture, says there is an important cultural story involved in the ratings success of the History Channel, but it goes beyond right- and left-wing politics. What intrigues Thompson is the way the channel’s programmers like Hoogstra have taken something once considered elite culture, a niche TV channel for people who love history, and made it into a mainstream viewing choice for millions of “regular people” in prime time.

“For the History Channel to position itself through the packaging, marketing and creation of programming like the ‘Hatfields & McCoys’ or ‘The Bible’ as the antithesis of elitism is an incredibly clever thing,” Thompson says.

“That they could take something like ‘The History Channel: where history comes alive,’ with this big bronze ‘H’ for a logo, and have it be the thing that regular people embrace really is kind of remarkable,” he adds. “I think a lot of big fans of the History Channel, somewhere humming in the back of their minds is the thought, ‘If only all those egghead teachers I used to have could have would made history this interesting.’ ”

david.zurawik@baltsun.com

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