July 1995 – I was invited to be the keynote speaker at the Religion and Prime Time Television Conference held in Los Angeles on June 1. The conference was attended by about 200 leaders from the television industry and from pro-family groups. I wanted to share my comments with you.
Once, while traveling in Europe, our guide asked my profession. She was told that I was a minister. She asked what branch of government I worked in. The concept of an American minister being a clergyman never entered her mind.
At first, I wondered why she thought American ministers worked for the government. Then I recalled that many European governments have ministers of education, of interior, etc. Had she been to America? No. Where, then, did she get her perception of America? It came from watching American television programs.
Watching those programs, she did not learn that America is – at its core – a religious country. Her view should not be too surprising. Even we Americans who watch television reach the same conclusion.
Watching TV, one quickly comes to the conclusion that sports are more popular than religion. On TV hardly anyone ever attends church, or prays, or seriously discusses religion. On TV religion hardly exists in American society. And when it does, it is far more often presented as a destructive rather than constructive force.
The late AP religion writer George Cornell wrote a column about religion and sports shortly before he died. He did research and found that the amount of money contributed to religion in 1992 totaled $56.7 billion. That is about 14 times the $4 billion spent on the three biggest sports – major league baseball, football and basketball.
In attendance, religion totaled 5.6 billion in 1993, based on annual Gallup Polls. That is about 55 times greater than the 103 million total attendance reported by the three main professional sports leagues.
The latest tally of overall attendance at all U.S. sporting events, gathered in 1990 by the Daily Racing Form, totaled 388 million including both professional and college football, baseball, basketball and hockey, and also boxing, tennis, soccer, wrestling, harness, automobile and dog racing.
In comparison, the religious attendance of 5.2 billion in 1990 was about 13 times the overall sports total. More people turned out for worship in one month – about 430 million – than the 388 million total all year at all sporting events.
Why this misperception on television about the centrality of religion in the social fabric of America? Lee Rich (Hollywood producer) gave the answer to that question during a debate I had with him years ago. “I haven’t been to church in 20 years,” Mr. Rich said, “and I don’t know anyone who goes to church.” Mr. Rich’s comment was confirmed by the Lichter/Rothman study showing that of the media elite responsible for our entertainment programs, 93% say they seldom or never attend religious services while 45% claimed no religion at all.
Columnist Mona Charen recently reported on one study which showed that in more than 1,000 hours of entertainment reviewed by the Media Research Center, negative references to the clergy outnumbered positive ones 4-to-1. Portrayals of lay believers were even worse, with 68% of churchgoers depicted negatively and only 18% shown positively.
More obvious than the negative presentation of people of faith, however, is the censorship of religion from prime-time television. The Media Research Center reported that of 1,716 hours of original programming on the four largest networks last year, there were only 253 portrayals of religion. The message from TV is quite clear – religion hardly exists in American society and when it does it is not a good thing.
Even more telling about Hollywood’s attitude toward religion is its treatment of values. Values are a by-product of one’s religion. When two-thirds of those entertainment media elite told Lichter/Rothman that they wanted to use their programming to reshape American society, they weren’t kidding – and they knew who and what they had in mind.
On a recent Law & Order episode, a band of self-righteous, murdering pro-lifers led by an ex-priest, were contrasted against a caring and courageous abortionist. On Fox’s House of Buggin’, three women in a singing group discuss their sexual preferences – bondage, the kind of men they like, etc. Before they go on stage, one prays that God will make her a lesbian so she can love her singing partners. Another thanks God for a defective condom that allowed her to get pregnant. And then they go on stage to sing about fornication, late periods and emasculating men. All, of course, accompanied by canned laughter.
On CBS’s The Five Mrs. Buchanans, the dense and ditzy blonde former stripper, now married to a preacher, sings “O Little Gown of Bethlehem.” She hasn’t a clue as to why believers celebrate Christmas, saying “I just love Christmas – a time that we set aside to remember what’s good and decent in all of us.”
A sister-in-law, excited about the city’s house decorating contest, vows, “Mrs. O’Leary’s head is gonna be spinning when I rip that blue ribbon out of her greedy little Catholic hand!” And their Jewish sister-in-law observes: “You Christians really have this holiday spirit down, don’t you!”
ABC decided that one episode of Roseanne was so good that the network aired it not just once, or even twice, but three times. Dan and Roseanne discover that D.J. has been lying about where he spends his afternoons. They assign Darlene to follow him. She reports, “...it’s worse than you thought. He’s going to church!”
When D.J. confirms Darlene’s report, Roseanne insists that D.J. can ask them anything he wants to know about God.
“What religion are we?” asks D.J.
"I have no idea," mom snarls.
Roseanne answers a phone call and arranges for the caller to see a new stove for sale at her diner. She says she won it in a game show. The truth was that a company mistakenly delivered two stoves instead of one.
D.J. confronts his mom: “You were never on any game show.”
“I was too on a game show. And if you didn’t spend all your time down at that da- - church, you’d know that!” mom screams back.
Later, D.J. asks why Roseanne makes him lie about his age when they go to the movies. “...more money to give to charity,” she lies.
Finally, D.J. declares, “I don’t think Darlene and David should be having sex without being married.” Roseanne and Dan both refuse to address the issue. Darlene changes the subject by suggesting D.J. ask mom about the stove she’s stealing. Roseanne insists that the company “gave” it to her, and that it’s nothing to the “big company” which “screws little people” like her all the time.
Roseanne sells the stove and divides the money with her partners. Confronted by D.J. even as they divide the spoils, Roseanne screams at her child, “Get off my back!! Even God took a day off!!”
Simply put, the story is that of a young boy searching for a moral anchor. He raises the issues of lying, cheating, stealing, and illicit teen sex, and on every point his family ridicules, patronizes or openly attacks him for implying that there aren’t any standards of right and wrong. Such is the state of prime-time TV.
About 15 years ago, in Aspen, Colorado, I sat across a room from Steven Bochco (current producer of NYPD Blue). He was one of about 50 producers and advertisers who were meeting with myself and one other concerned activist discussing the impact of television on our society. I remember little else about that meeting except this: Mr. Bochco said he was going to push the limits of television as far as he could. He did not say he was going to create the most entertaining, beneficial, helpful programs that would contribute to a more moral and productive society. Rather his ambition was to push the limits of television as far as he could. I must confess that Mr. Bochco’s attitude tends to be the norm, rather than the exception, in Hollywood.
When prime-time TV depicts 88% of all sexual activity between people not married to each other, television makes lust more attractive than love. When children see 100,000 acts of violence by the time they graduate from high school, television has helped produce the impression that violence is a normal experience in life, and by implication that it is acceptable behavior.
The responsibility for the current treatment of religion and religious values on TV must be jointly shared by the TV industry and those in the organized religious communities, who by their silence have condoned this practice.
By including a realistic presentation of religion and religious values in its programming, television could help make ours a less violent and a more moral and stable society.
What do people of faith expect from prime-time television? Just fair play, that’s all.