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Why History Channel's 'The Bible' draws boffo ratings despite reviews (+video)

Reviews of History Channel's 'The Bible' are lukewarm at best, but the Easter-season series is scoring high ratings, pointing to what some call an overlooked appetite for religious storytelling.

Why The Bible miniseries gets big ratings
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This is the time of year for traditional sandals-and-toga programming, but this year’s five-episode, 10-hour History Channel miniseries, “The Bible,” is a sensation.

According to Nielsen, the first two Sundays leading up to Easter drew in some 12 million viewers, making it the top-rated cable program of the night. Horizon media, meanwhile, said some 50 million viewers tuned in to at least some portion of the program over the first three weekends of its run.

At the same time, reviews have been lukewarm at best, with critics dismissing it as shallow gore. Conservative commentator Glenn Beck, meanwhile, suggested the show was taking a veiled jab at President Obama by casting a look-alike actor as the devil.

But, say religious and entertainment experts, the runaway success of the Judeo-Christian-themed show reveals an appetite for religious programming that is consistently overlooked in Hollywood.

“We often forget that Christians are still the largest special interest group in America,” says Hollywood producer and Christian media advocate Phil Cooke.

“Whenever they rally behind a movie, TV series, product, or cause, something big happens,” he adds, pointing to the now landmark message sent by Mel Gibson’s “Passion of the Christ.” Within months, he notes, “nearly every studio in Hollywood had opened a faith-based division,” hoping to capitalize on that market.

The approach to the material is key, says Mr. Cooke. While TV is chock full of religious-themed programming around Easter, such shows typically look at issues that don’t appeal to the faithful, he notes. “These shows ask questions like ‘Is Jesus real?’ or ‘Did he sleep with Mary Magdalene?’ Those are not questions that this audience wants to know.”

The show’s producers are quick to point out that they consulted a bevy of experts, some 40 in all ranging from scholars to archeologists.

But, says religious historian Stephen Cooper, a professor of religion at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, Pa., it is the very absence of such talking heads that makes this show appealing.

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