Last week, the annual PURPOSE Family Entertainment and Faith-Based Summit convened in Beverly Hills. All the convention’s attendees demonstrated a clear understanding of the concepts of “faith” and “family” entertainment — except America’s broadcast networks.
Co-sponsored by Variety magazine and the advertising and marketing firm Rogers & Cowan, PURPOSE is a one-day convention which brings together companies and individuals who create, produce, distribute, promote, or are otherwise interested in entertainment which reflects faith-based concerns, or which is generally intended for family audiences. (Though there was some overlap, these categories are not synonymous; of the projects discussed at the convention, many of those intended for families had no faith component, and a few of the faith-based productions contained content which might not be appropriate for family audiences.)
Attendees spanned the entertainment industry gamut, from major film and television content producers like Disney and Walden Media, to individual family-friendly networks like INSP, UP, BYU-TV, and the Hallmark Channel, to independent creators seeking distribution for their projects. Also present were writers, producers, and directors from such TV and theatrical films as Earth to Echo, Grace Unplugged, Signed, Sealed, Delivered and others. There were even a few actors present, like Fred Thompson (Law & Order) and Kevin Sorbo (Hercules: the Legendary Journeys, Gene Roddenberry’s Andromeda, and God’s Not Dead.)
While all these individuals had a wide variety of perspectives on the best ways to craft entertainment that would appeal to a faith and/or family audience, in one aspect nearly all the convention’s attendees demonstrated a remarkable unanimity. All of them knew instinctively what is meant by “family entertainment”; and all of them agreed that the most important thing in making such entertainment, or in appealing to a faith-based audience, is authenticity.
That is, those making such entertainment have to understand, agree with, and sincerely believe in the importance and value of accurately presenting family and/or faith-based entertainment, on its own terms and for its own sake. All agreed that a production supposedly created to make money off of a “faith” or “family” audience, but which is made by insincere individuals who are cynical, even derogatory, toward such beliefs, will inevitably fail. This is confirmed by a recent poll by the Christian News Service, which found that 79% of respondents said that historical and biblical accuracy is important in movies based on the Bible. The same poll found that 80% of the Christian community plans to see the upcoming movie Exodus if it remains true to the Bible; but that number falls off to 29% if the movie fails to be biblically accurate.
Nor is this expectation unreasonable. Just as, say, gays or African-Americans rightly demand that a film or TV show which depicts their lifestyle be sincere, well-intentioned, and fair and accurate in its portrayal, so too do people of faith and family audiences. (A short way to say this is, “people can smell a phony” – and bitterly resent it.) All of the convention’s attendees understood and appreciated this fact.
After morning and early afternoon of sessions with and by individuals from all aspects of entertainment who truly believe in the importance of providing family-friendly entertainment, one late-afternoon session was set aside for a discussion with representatives of television networks (CBS, Fox, the CW, Hallmark Channel, and the National Geographic Channel). The difference in tone and attitude between this session and the rest of the convention was so blatant it was jarring.
Here are a few statements, verbatim, made by various representatives of the broadcast networks (names have been withheld to protect the guilty):
“Faith has never been embraced by audiences in the past.” (This would come as a surprise to the audiences which made blockbuster hits of movies like Son of God and The Passion of the Christ – not to mention to Muslims, whose faith was founded 1400 years ago; Christians, whose faith has endured for 2000 years; and Jews, whose faith goes back 4000 years.)
“Faith has nothing to do with religion. Faith isn’t about God any more…and that’s a good thing.”
But the worst offender was the representative of the CW network, whose example of “faith-based programming” was the ultra-violent and profane drama Supernatural. “It’s all about faith! Angels, Heaven, Hell, the Apocalypse…the story of God getting fed up, deserting Heaven, and leaving the angels to run everything, and they screw up. You get the other side of the conversation!” gushed the CW rep. Apparently, it never occurred to this “expert” that “the other side of the conversation” from that of a loving, patient, merciful, and all-powerful God may not be one devout Christians will want to watch for entertainment.
The CW representative then went on to boast about two new series premiering this fall, which she assured her colleagues would appeal to “family” audiences. In Jane the Virgin, a shy, virginal high-school student who, in the charming words of her best friend, “hasn’t boned”, is accidentally impregnated during a routine gynecological exam and finds herself pregnant without having had sex. The Messengers, according to CW’s rep, is about a group of people who “die, come back as angels, defy God, and try to stop the Rapture.” Whatever one’s view of eschatology, the notion that a show premised on “defying God” and stopping the Rapture will appeal to devout Christians seems beyond clueless. How totally tone-deaf are the network’s executives and their so-called “creative” staffs, anyway? And why should the millions upon millions of Americans who are devout believers be happy that the airwaves they themselves own are being polluted with such rubbish?
To be fair, not everyone on the panel was so obtuse. One media representative (unsurprisingly, from the family-friendly Hallmark Channel) did state that “there’s so much content that’s so sexual, so graphic, and so dark, that positive and inspirational shows are more desired by audiences today.” And the representative from the National Geographic Channel rightly pointed out that most of the entertainment industry is “too focused on New York and Los Angeles, which are very secular. If you’re looking at middle America, family, faith, and inspirational shows are much stronger with audiences,” using as an example the huge success of the mini-series The Bible on the History Channel.
Overall, the Faith and Family Entertainment conference showed the current divided state of the media world: there is a small but growing number of program creators and producers who understand, and are sincerely committed to, family entertainment and faith-based programming; and there is the extant, entrenched industry, run by huge mega-conglomerates, which is cynical and totally clueless about such programming – to the point that, even when they want to make money off of family audiences, don’t know how.