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From Sermons to Game Shows, Religious TV Wears New Look


On the sleek set of the game show "Inspiration Please!," host Robert G. Lee is grilling his three contestants. "Which emperor made Christianity the Roman Empire's official religion?"

Before the question is entirely out of Mr. Lee's mouth, Patrick is hitting his buzzer and shouting, "Constantine!"

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"All rrright!" crows Lee.

This snappy half-hour game show on the Odyssey channel is part of a new brand of religious television.

Rocked by scandal in the late 1980s, religious broadcasting has undergone a 1990s resurrection. The number of faith-based TV stations has almost tripled in the last decade, and programming has changed dramatically.

Comedy shows and rock-climbing specials are replacing traditional sermons. Their success, emphasizing values over denominational preaching, reflects a strong demand for value-oriented content that's being felt even in the mainstream media.

"People are sick of the common fare of programming on commercial stations," says Phyllis Zagano, a Boston University communications professor. "There's inevitably some insipid or off-color remark. Some ... are choosing not to see it - they'd rather watch something uplifting."

They've been doing so in waves, driving growth in religious programming that would make network executives envious. Figures from the National Religious Broadcasters show the number of religious stations has grown 283 percent since 1986 and that religious TV stations made up 16 percent of the entire industry in 1996, up from 7 percent in 1990. Forty million viewers a week watched devotional programs in 1990, an NRB study showed.

"Given the growth in stations, we know those numbers have gone up," says spokeswoman Sarah Smith.

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But viewers who tune in aren't getting the electronic church of the past. Once almost uniformly evangelical, religious TV of old focused on rousing sermons - a video version of real-life fare. Now, in a change that seems to be drawing new viewers, it's no longer strictly religious.

The new programming is a varied mix of mainstream formats, including sports and how-to shows, presented by and for different faiths. One 24-hour Christian station, Chicago's WCFC, airs Saturday fishing shows along with programs on health and nutrition and women's issues, as well as in-depth religious shows.

"It's not a move completely away from preaching," explains WCFC owner Jerry Rose. "But we're looking at new ways to serve a new generation. The objective is to ... develop the next model of Christian television."

Odyssey - a consortium of 64 faith groups that reaches 28 million homes, up from 13 million in 1992 - airs major network shows it believes espouse positive values. It also screens social and political documentaries and creates its own material, such as a series on parenting.

"Spiritual values embodied in a variety of programming don't have to be preaching or Bible study," says Jeffrey Weber, president of New York-based Odyssey Productions. "Just because it's fun doesn't mean it's frivolous."

"We don't necessarily want to preach a doctrine," adds Mike Doyle, of Golden Dome Productions in South Bend, Ind., about their mix of programs. "We want to look at issues of our time from our background of faith and learning. A lot of people don't think of that as religious programming, but to me, it's just as much so as evangelical TV."

But religious television has an Achilles' heel: The industry is self-regulating. That leads some analysts to worry that the sex and money scandals that felled Jim Bakker and Jimmy Swaggart could recur, stalling religious TV's momentum as it did in the late 1980s.

Religious broadcasters are not overseen by the government due to church-and-state separation laws and are monitored by an industry body, the National Religious Broadcasters. But submitting to that group's financial scrutiny is purely voluntary, meaning those who don't join are completely unregulated.

Add to this the fact that 20 percent of religious stations rely on viewer donations, not ad sales, to stay on the air, and there is real potential for abuse, says Jeffrey Courtright, a professor at Miami University in Ohio who studies televangelism.

"The nature of the medium forces you into continual fund-raising mode," he says. "As long as religious networks are treated like churches and nonprofits ... there's not a lot of ways of stopping excesses."

While religious television is still largely the domain of evangelical groups, other faiths are using it as an outreach tool. Jewish groups broadcast shows on the Odyssey channel and on Chicago's WCFC, while Hare Krishna TV beams its mantra out to 10,000 people in the Houston area.

"There's a definite awareness on the part of religious leaders that TV is an important and powerful medium for communicating their messages," says Mr. Doyle of Golden Dome. "People are even using multimedia CD-ROMs to meet their needs. It's new technology for a lot of religious groups, but a lot of them are exploring it."

This evolution is coinciding with a resurgence of interest in religion and widespread frustration with mainstream TV. A recent TV Guide poll showed 56 percent of viewers don't think religion gets enough attention on prime-time shows.

Some say the networks are beginning to respond and point to increased news coverage of religion and to shows like "Touched by an Angel" as examples.

There are doubting Thomases, though. "I don't think this is going to influence Hollywood that much," says Don Wildmon, president of the American Family Association, a Mississippi group that tracks how the media deals with religion.

Boston University's Professor Zagano strikes a measured note, suggesting network response might be a matter of realpolitik.

"The networks might change," she says, "but they'll do so because there's a buck to be made - and there really is. Disney ... doesn't seem to be in trouble."

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