Common Wisdom: Touched By Confusion

God actually made the cover of TV Guide. Covers spotlight the hottest celebrity du jour, reflecting viewer interest. Interest translates to the entertainment industry’s bottom line and top priority, ratings.

The sight of God’s holy name writ large against clouds and a blue sky on the cover was a shock, understood only when I read articles in the magazine and a poll it conducted among adults nationwide. These revealed that Hollywood, primary locus for the production of movies and TV, has seen a great light. It now recognizes what the rest of us already knew from every poll ever taken: Americans profess belief in God and, in large numbers, declare religious affiliation.

The success of the spiritually oriented series Touched by an Angel required Hollywood to confront the unthinkable. Viewers not only like God, they really like him. Audience enthusiasm for a program cannot be ignored, meaning as it does the ring of cash registers, advertisers lining up to buy commercial time. It also generates carbon copies of the original. One good doctor show breeds white coat clones. Satisfying the market for more spiritual dramas, however, looms as a unique challenge.

By its own admission and obvious from its products, Hollywood is lopsided with people allergic or antagonistic to God and religious practice. This is meticulously detailed in film critic Michael Medved’s book Hollywood vs. America. The truth is that Hollywood is out of synch with the majority of Americans. How then can it write with credibility and respect about faith and religion, lacking either? With a relativistic, will o’ the wisp morality, how to script characters centered on God and his commandments, on people not caving in to greed and gratification? Such is the dilemma facing writers for the 1997 fall season, which promises four new shows modeled on the spiritually charged Touched by an Angel.

In Touched by an Angel, God is not represented through the typical Hollywood lens by a crazed evangelical or repressed celibate. God is presented affirmatively, perceived and manifested in characters as their strength and joy. This, in fact, is what Martha Williamson, executive producer and creative force behind Touched by an Angel, has accomplished. She states unapologetically that the show is not about angels but about God. In a statement startling for a TV executive, Williamson uttered a revolutionary and heretical objective: “I’d like [viewers] to end up as believers.”

The success of her series puts that industry between a rock and a hard place. Revenue beckons as the TV Guide poll reveals a compelling 82 percent of viewers want more references to moral issues on TV; in prime time 68 percent want more spirituality, 61 percent want more references to God, churchgoing, and other religious observances, and 41 percent identify themselves as attending church or synagogue at least once a week.

This profile is diametrically opposed to profiles of those who produce, write, and direct what we see on television. According to a story in the New York Times, executives are responding to those preferences but having a hard time embracing them.

Already there are murmurings and compromises to alleviate predictable distress in the creative community. Les Moonves, president of CBS Entertainment, said “There will be less of the idea of divine intervention and more about people helping people. It will be humanistic rather than religious.” Way to go, Les!

Dumbing God down, making spirituality more palatable to the skewed Hollywood construct, wasn’t always the case. Early on, TV executives understood the reality of God and religion in the lives of most Americans. TV acknowledged that importance and respected that audience. It offered in prime time a genuine priest giving sermons. Solid theology was liberally laced with warmth and humor. Audiences rushed to their sets on those evenings with all the fervor of current fans to ER. The priest was Bishop Fulton J. Sheen and his Emmy award-winning program was Life Is Worth Living. Bishop Sheen is dead, and considering the violence, cynicism, and immorality on TV today, so is the title’s premise.

But God and his believers just won’t go away. Williamson’s audience is an extraordinary twenty million. Generally ignored, insulted, or marginalized, this significant population recognizes themselves in her stories. The struggles, the losses, the triumphs are theirs, all related to faith, steady or wavering, in good times or in bad. This is the largely untold story. It remains to be seen if, as it tries to copy Touched by an Angel, Hollywood is capable or brave enough to let God follow Ellen out of the closet.


B. F. Smith is a freelance writer and former contributing editor to Crisis Magazine.

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