Powers that be at NBC-TV placed a big bet on the Bible, and sorta lost

What’s the future for quality, religiously themed dramas on U.S. broadcast television? That story theme, which reporters could develop with help from entertainment industry analysts, emerges from the track record  of “A.D.: The Bible Continues.” This NBC miniseries about the birth of Christianity, drawn from  the biblical Book of Acts,  wrapped on June 21.

Broadcasters often relegate religious fare to the Christmas and Easter seasons and the rest of the year may depict devout characters in bit parts that are not always flattering to faith.  However, NBC placed a big bet on a reverential series that was adjudged “handsomely mounted” but “thuddingly earnest” by Variety, the showbiz bible. The first episode ran on Easter Sunday and the programs were then granted another consecutive 11 Sundays in prime time including the May ratings “sweeps.” That’s coveted TV real estate.

NBC’s  innovation made commercial sense, you’d think, given past box-office results and hoped-for viewership among millions upon millions of U.S. churchgoers. Moreover, star producers Mark Burnett and Roma Downey had scored an impressive surprise hit on cable TV with their similar 2013 miniseries “The Bible” on the History Channel (jointly owned by ABC-Disney and Hearst).  The first episode drew 13.1 million viewers, others consistently posted above 10 million, and the Easter Sunday conclusion had an audience of 11.7 million. It was the second most popular miniseries the channel has ever carried.

However, NBC’s 2015 outing was a different matter, which probably underscores the difference between cable and broadcast in this era of fragmentation and specialized niche audiences. Yes, it was the top show on Easter, handily beating ABC’s perennial “Ten Commandments” rerun.

Looking just at “the demo” of viewers 28-49 that governs advertising sales and thus broadcast programming,  “A.D. “ drew a respectable 9.7 million on Easter. However, it then slid in all but one of the succeeding weeks and concluded with a mere 3.56 million in the “demo.” Despite appreciative online fans, it’s hard to believe NBC will order a second season, though a one-shot broadcast on Easter seems possible and another cable miniseries is likely.

“A.D.” featured a substantial budget, acceptable if not splendid scripting that mostly followed the Acts text, and a talented lineup of actors -- though all were relative unknowns. 

One possible factor in the post-Easter slide was that  Jesus (like ABC’s Moses) remains the big attraction and he soon disappeared from the narrative. Sorry, Peter, James, John, and Paul.

Turning to Broadway, after some snarky treatments of religion there’ll be similar significance in the box office for the forthcoming musical “Amazing Grace,” based on the remarkable life story of John Newton who wrote the words to that beloved hymn. The show opens July 16 and previews began this week at the Nederlander Theater.

By coincidence, the record run on that 94-year-old stage was 806 performances of the original production of “Inherit the Wind,” which won Tony Awards for best play and for actors Ed Begley and Paul Muni, and also  gave Tony Randall his first major Broadway role.

 That fictionalized version of the 1925 “Monkey Trial” in Tennessee brings to mind a long-ago quip –- probably in The Wittenburg (sic) Door magazine -- that modern evangelicals are so ignorant of history that they think Scopes is just another mouthwash.

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