Leading the faithful to prime time; More religious programming is turning out to be the answer to the networks' ratings prayers.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Prime-time television is getting religion.

We are not talking about a programming explosion of Pokemon-like proportions, mind you. But the examples of both network and public television using their most precious hours to seriously explore religious themes and matters of the spirit have been steadily building in recent months.

What's more, if you compare the ratings success of many programs that treat religion respectfully with the public's flat-out rejection of new, ruder, cruder, nastier series on network TV this fall, you can't help but wonder: Might we not be witnessing a larger shift in sensibility when it comes to our feelings about television and God?

"There is a rise in the number of programs dealing with religion, and, in our case, it's connected to the response and deep appreciation that people have shown when we've offered such programs. People are clearly hungry for it, and we can feel that hunger in ourselves," says Michael Sullivan, executive producer for PBS' acclaimed "Frontline" series. "Frontline" earned some its highest ratings ever in 1998 for a historical documentary on Jesus, titled "From Jesus to Christ."

"Frontline" enjoyed the same kind of critical and ratings success last month with "John Paul II: The Millennial Pope." On Nov. 22, the nonfiction series will take viewers inside the Book of Revelation with "Apocalypse." Sullivan said such explorations of faith and religion are a new dimension for the public television series, which is primarily devoted to politics and investigative journalism.

"It's a matter of our editors trying to be responsive to the times," he said. "And the times are changing."

Going with the spirit

On commercial television, one of the most obvious examples of the rise in religious programming can be seen tonight on NBC with the film "Mary, Mother of Jesus," starring Pernilla August ("Star Wars"), Christian Bale ("A Midsummer Night's Dream") and Geraldine Chaplin ("Mother Teresa: In the Name of God's Poor"). It is produced by Eunice Kennedy Shriver and her son, Bobby Shriver, and treats its New Testament story line with such reverence that it will surely remind some viewers of lessons in Sunday school.

At first glance, the most striking thing about the film is its place on the schedule: the night of heaviest viewing in the middle of the highly competitive and incredibly commercial November "sweeps" ratings period. Tonight at 9 it will go up against a major documentary on PBS about New York and a big-budget disaster film on CBS about an earthquake in New York City from Robert Halmi Sr. of "Merlin" and "Gulliver's Travels" fame.

But that's the kind of confidence the networks have these days in religion. One of the reasons NBC wanted to get the film on in November "sweeps" was to beat CBS and its four-hour miniseries, "Jesus," to the punch. CBS will air its miniseries during the February or May sweeps. It stars Jacqueline Bisset as Mary, along with Jeremy Sisto ("The '60s") as Jesus, Gary Oldman ("Air Force One") as Pontius Pilate, and Armin Mueller-Stahl ("Avalon") as Joseph.

The competition between the two is such that Leslie Moonves, president of CBS, after suggesting that NBC was rushing its film to get it on air first, added, "But our Jesus will beat their Jesus."

To which Scott Sassa, NBC's West Coast president, replied: "Did Les tell you he invented the Bible? This isn't exactly a new story. We are getting our story on before theirs partially because we developed it before they did."

Both networks are trying to duplicate the triumph of CBS' "Joan of Arc" miniseries last May, which treated the story of the French heroine as a religious saga focusing on Joan's faith in God. Bisset, who played the mother of Joan, was signed to play the mother of Jesus the week the ratings for "Joan of Arc" became known.

The nearest rival to "Joan" in terms of ratings: NBC's "Noah's Ark" miniseries, which was mocked by critics but watched by millions.

Hardly a Sunday has gone by this fall when one of the major networks hasn't offered a Sunday night movie-of-the-week with some sort of religious theme, such as "The Soul Collector" last month on CBS.

In its pitch to advertisers, the network described the film as being "in the spirit of 'Heaven Can Wait.'" It starred Bruce Greenwood as an angel grown callous in duties of collecting souls who is sent to live among humans to redeem himself and discover compassion. On his journey, he falls in love with a woman, played by Melissa Gilbert, and refuses to claim her son's soul when the boy's time is at hand. Greenwood's no-nonsense angel boss is played by Ossie Davis.

The subject matter and casting of "The Soul Collector" makes it pretty obvious what CBS is up to with its Sunday night films: It is trying to hold the huge audience that starts the night on CBS with "Touched By An Angel."

Competitors such as NBC are trying to steal that audience with Sunday night movies -- like "Mary, Mother of Jesus" tonight -- that begin when "Touched By An Angel" ends and viewers might be thinking about changing channels.

But where did that huge audience for "Touched By An Angel" come from in the first place? The overtly religious series starring Roma Downey and Della Reese as angels is one of the longest- running hits on network TV.

"We are seeing more religiously themed subject matter on TV these days," says Michael Duricy, a researcher at the Marian Library/International Marian Research Institute at the University of Dayton, the primary consultant for tonight's NBC film about Mary. Duricy explains the rise in terms of nostalgia, the millennium, and the appeal of the pope.

"Mary" producer Eunice Kennedy Shriver says she sees a "longing in people for some kind of spiritual satisfaction."

"Frontline's" Sullivan says he and many of his producers and editors have been thinking about such matters a lot recently in connection with the popularity of their explorations of religion.

"It may be for the simple reason that baby boomers are aging and are relooking at these questions that for many of us were pushed aside in our youth," Sullivan says.

"I mean, sometimes people just went to other religions, more exotic religions. Some people just went to pure secularism. At the very least, though, there was a rush out of the churches, out of authoritarian religion, away from institutional religion. That was clearly going on."

Like many baby boomers, Sullivan says, he started rethinking religion in the context of what values he would pass on to his children.

"What got me interested in all of this on a more personal level was realizing that the churches had been the keepers of the moral code. And I looked around and said, 'Who else is doing this now?' And it came at the time when I was thinking, 'How do I talk to my children about this?'

"When we talk about religion, we are talking about a code, a codification of what we believe about correct behavior. And I think we are realizing how important this discussion is to our culture today. It's one of the subjects we're going to continue to explore anyway."

Religious drama

What: "Mary, Mother of Jesus"

When: 9 p.m. to 11 p.m. tonight

Where: NBC (WBAL, Channel 11)

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