February 2004 – Dave Alan Johnson and Gary R. Johnson, creators/producers of the PAX net’s Sue Thomas: F.B.Eye and Doc, intentionally use their two hit series not only to entertain, but also to evangelize.
The Johnsons grew up in Buffalo Center, Iowa, population 1,000. They consider Hollywood their mission field. “We look at everything we do as our mission,” Dave says. “Definitely, we use our shows as evangelistic tools.” In a recent exclusive interview, he and his brother, Gary, cite a couple of major turning points in their careers.
First, about 10 years ago, 200,000 AFA Journal readers sent them a much-appreciated deluge of encouraging letters when their NBC series Against the Grain was slated for cancellation. It didn’t keep the series on the air. In fact, it ended before its first season concluded. Still, Dave says the AFA mail campaign created a big turning point for him. It challenged him to look for ways to incorporate his Christian faith into his work.
“That was when Dave brought me out here [to Los Angeles], to work on that show,” says Gary. “I think it’s gotta be the most letters anybody’s ever gotten on any show – at least until E-mail came along.”
“Before that,” Dave says, “we were out here and we were believers. But that was one part of our lives – and then we had a job. It was during the Against the Grain process that I realized those things are not to be separated.”
Second turning point
After Against the Grain, Gary worked on Second Noah (ABC), and Dave on High Incident (ABC), the latter in which he collaborated with Steven Spielberg. That put him into the high-pressure crucible of prime-time big-leaguers, and he learned that Hollywood is a tough place to survive. Dave didn’t like the lies and cheating that permeated the atmosphere in which he worked, and he didn’t like getting beat up all the time in the press and in the industry.
He went home one day and told Diane, his wife, they should just forget about television and go be missionaries somewhere.
“I really didn’t mean I wanted to be a missionary,” Dave admits. “What I really meant was I just wanted to be where nobody had an agenda to backstab me.”
He remembers Diane’s response: “Name me one place on earth that needs missionaries more than where you are right now!”
“That moment changed my life,” says Dave. “Suddenly, I saw why I was here, why I had been given the gift I have, why I had been given the position, the opportunity. It wasn’t for me, it wasn’t so I could make a lot of money, it wasn’t so I could have lots of accolades in the industry. That wasn’t what it was about. It was about Him.”
In the years to follow, he worked more and more diligently to make his work reflect the Christian principles which guide his own life.
Move to PAX
While Dave and Gary Johnson continued to pursue projects that would allow the faith element, a man named Lowell “Bud” Pax-son was being made a wealthy man by his Home Shopping Network. In 1986, Paxson became a Christian and in 1990, he sold the shopping network and resolved to create a family-friendly network. Not just a series or two, but an entire network.
Paxson hired TV and film veteran Jeff Sagansky to head PAX net. Sagansky’s credentials include stints at NBC, CBS, Sony Pictures, and TriStar. Over the years, Sagansky became disenchanted with Hollywood’s trend to push shows with edge and attitude. At CBS he had developed Dr. Quinn: Medicine Woman, Christy, and Touched by an Angel, all noted for family-friendly fare.
Slowly but surely, Paxson made progress, buying a string of television stations and preparing to debut a whole new network. By the mid 1990s, the PAX network was available to about 80% of the nation’s viewers. Initially, it depended on reruns of popular series in syndication.
By the end of the decade, PAX began offering new series based on moral premises. Dave had worked with Sagansky at CBS, so it’s no surprise that Sagansky called Dave about creating some shows for PAX.
Doc and Sue
Doc debuted in 2000, and Sue Thomas: F.B.Eye in 2002, and quickly developed a loyal viewing audience.
Doc follows the adventures of Dr. Clint Cassidy (Billy Ray Cyrus) after he moves his practice from rural Montana to New York City. Sue Thomas is based on the real-life story of a severely deaf young woman who landed a job with the FBI in Washington, DC.
Sue Thomas gets a boost in its appeal from Jesse, the actor dog known as Levi in the series. The real-life Sue Thomas is assisted by hearing dog Amazing Grace. Hearing dogs serve the deaf much as seeing eye dogs serve the blind. They alert their deaf owners to a ringing doorbell, a ringing phone, a voice, or any number of other sounds that help the person function in a hearing world.
The Johnsons are openly frustrated with a secular media shutout of publicity about the two series. “We have a really tough time getting any attention from the secular press,” Dave says, “even though our numbers are much bigger than other shows they pump all the time.”
He cites Queer Eye for the Straight Guy as an example. “Everybody in the secular press is calling it a monster hit,” says Dave. “After their pilot episode they’re on Jay Leno, all the morning talk shows, they’re on the cover of Entertainment Weekly magazine. TV Guide talks about them.
“The pilot episode for Queer Eye did a 1.1 rating. The pilot for Doc did a 2.5 rating. Sue Thomas did a 2.0 rating. Yet we couldn’t get on any of the [talk] shows. We went to them, and they still wouldn’t let us on.”
It is ironic that Sue Thomas, with its politically correct theme – a title character who can claim minority status – is shut out of the press. The character is played by Deanne Bray, a deaf actress. Such shows usually draw rave reviews and accolades. Yet, Sue Thomas has received hardly a nod of recognition from media or the industry.
What the Johnsons have done with these two series is remarkable. “Still,” says Dave, “we can’t get secular press to talk about us as a hit, to do anything.”
He and Gary give a number of ways viewers can have an impact for good in the industry. First is to pray. Second, watch their shows and other decent series, and talk to friends and family about them. Third, they say it does help to contact advertisers with E-mails, phone calls, and letters.
James Keenley, marketing director for both series, says they appreciate advertisers like KFC, Campbell, and Merck, who have regularly supported the shows (See Action Index below.)
Dave admits that Christians are never going to redeem all of Hollywood. “But,” he asks, “what are the consequences if we don’t even try?”
AFA Journal changes television coverage to include broader entertainment issues
When Don Wildmon founded American Family Association in 1977, he hoped to clean up television. Little could he have envisioned the vast array of networks, series, and specials that crowd the airwaves today.
“We were successful in numerous campaigns through the years,” says Wildmon, “especially some in which advertisers changed their policies and practices. But with the increase of communications by electronic means, the letter campaigns like we used to do kind of get lost in the shuffle.”
AFA president Tim Wildmon said, “Several years ago, we realized our constituency was not watching much television anymore. We couldn’t even get enough volunteers to monitor during sweeps periods and give us usable data.”
The AFA Journal will continue to focus on entertainment issues, including television. “We will continue to have an activist slant,” said Journal editor Randall Murphree. “We will actually expand our coverage beyond the four major networks, and we will still give activist information.”
Use this information to write or call advertisers cited in this issue’s TV feature.
Campbell Soup Company
Chrm. George M. Sherman
Camden, NJ 08103
Toll Free: 1-800-257-8443
Products: Campbell’s soups, tomato juice, and beans, Franco-American pasta, Godiva chocolates, Pace picante sauce and salsa, Pepperidge Farm cookies, crackers & breads, Prego spaghetti sauce, Swanson broths, V-8 vegetable juice
Merck & Co., Inc.
Chrm. Raymond V. Gilmartin
P. O. Box 100
Whitehouse Station, NJ 08889
Toll Free: 1-800-613-2104
Products: Frontline pet medication, Heartgard pet supplies, Propecia hair restorative product, Zocor
Yum! Brands, Inc.
Chrm. David C. Novak
1441 Gardiner Lane
Louisville, KY 40213
Toll Free: 1-888-874-4986
Products: Kentucky Fried Chicken, Pizza Hut, Taco Bell