- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 16, 2004

Network television’s depictions of religion are “overwhelmingly” negative, despite 90 percent of the American public professing a belief in God, according to a study released yesterday by the Parents Television Council.

NBC leads the pack as the most anti-religious network, followed in order by Fox, the WB, ABC, UPN and CBS, says the study of 2,385 hours of prime-time programming during a 12-month period beginning September 2003. Only the Pax network had no negative depictions. Cable shows were not included in the study

“Hollywood is an industry that maintains that it reflects reality,” said Brent Bozell, president of the council, “but people see their most fundamental beliefs being attacked as punch lines in drama series.”

The study logged “treatments” of religion, such as references to church services, denominations or to Scripture, as well as references to clergy and devout laity. Clergy and religious institutions were cast “strikingly” negative; laity only a little less so, it said.

To be counted as negative in the study, religion had to be treated in a derogatory manner or treated without respect in a specific instance.

Several incidents were cited, such as a Dec. 17 episode of Fox’s “That ‘70s Show” that referred to a couple having sex next to a manger scene; an Aug. 5 episode of NBC’s “Last Comic Standing” that referred to Catholicism as a religion that awards a “get-out-of-hell-free card” to anyone but pedophile priests; and a dialogue in a Feb. 10 episode of NBC’s “Will and Grace” in which sidekick Karen tells lead character Grace, “Let’s go buy that historic church and turn it into a gay bar.”

NBC spokeswoman Allison Gollust said the network could not comment on the study because it had not seen it, but she said, “We reject its conclusion.”

“Our programming reflects the diversity of our audience, which averages more than 10 million viewers per night,” she said. “It is never our intention to appear — nor do we accept the notion that we are — ‘anti-religious.’”

Frank Wright, president of the National Religious Broadcasters, called the negativity “systemic” around Hollywood, adding that “a disinterested observer might conclude there is some kind of anti-faith collusion taking place.”

Prime-time religion “is like producing a sports highlight film where all you do is show the players’ strike-outs but never their home runs,” he said.

At best, he added, screenwriters and directors show a “creative laziness” in not bothering to research how religious people think or act.

“It’s easier to fashion a latter-day Elmer Gantry,” he said, referring to the fictional preacher sensationalized in the novel by the same name by Sinclair Lewis. “It’s like a merit badge to attack people of religious convictions.”

Pax had the fewest references to religion, but 90.7 of those were positive, the study said. ABC had the most references.

Religious references on prime-time TV are up, council researchers said, in comparison with a similar 1997 study that found only 551 treatments of religion in 1,800 hours of programming. The more recent study found 2,344 treatments of religion in 2,385 hours.

“That’s one treatment per hour, a threefold increase, which is good,” Mr. Bozell said. “But religion continues to be a negative in the entertainment industry.”

“No one is suggesting every program ought to be about St. Teresa,” he added. “That’s not the point. One wishes that an institution that purports to reflect reality would simply do that.”

The more positive references, Mr. Bozell said, tended to be generalized, broad-brush treatments of religion on shows such as CBS’ “Joan of Arcadia” and the WB’s “7th Heaven.”

But the more specific the reference to a certain segment of Christianity, the more negative the treatment, he said, adding that “anti-Catholic bigotry” was “rampant” on network shows.

“Catholicism is in the bull’s-eye of the entertainment media,” he said. “In the past, the fundamentalists were. It’s a sign of the times.”

Scandals like pedophile priests do happen, he said, but networks should not portray them as normative for a denomination of more than 63 million Americans.

“No one is suggesting that should not be a story line,” he said, “but is it the only story line? The police drama ‘NYPD Blue’ on ABC once did feature a priest accused of pedophilia, but at the end of the story line, one learns the priest was innocent.”

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