- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 14, 2013

Sure, it’s easy to criticize Hollywood, but try to remember that the entertainment industry today is an intellectually demanding environment, fraught with many cognitively challenging, even intractable, questions, like, to take one recent example: How can the cable mini-series “The Bible” be such a ratings hit when there is no audience for overtly religious entertainment programming?

According to the latest Nielsens, released Tuesday, Sunday night’s telecast of “The Bible,” produced by husband-and-wife team Mark Burnett and Roma Downey for basic cable’s History channel, managed to attract more viewers than anything on two on the “Big 4” broadcast networks — NBC and ABC — during the entire week. 

The audience for the third installment of the five-part mini-series (8-10 p.m. Sundays through Easter) rose slightly from the previous week, to 10.9 million viewers, good for number one in its timeslot, number one on cable and nine overall for the week.

Week two of the biblical epic — the first foray into scripted drama for “Survivor” creator Burnett — drew 10.8 million viewers, best in its timeslot and number 11 for the week overall.

Bigger than both was the series premiere, which amassed an audience of 13.1 million viewers, cable’s largest of the year. Part one topped the ratings for both of that week’s episodes of “American Idol.” (Not the first time He has bested idols in this ancient rivalry — but, still, an impressive feat, even if Fox’s longtime ratings juggernaut is showing signs of slippage.)

Blockbuster ratings for a compilation of bible stories from a reality TV producer taking his first crack at drama? Can’t be. If there was a market for biblical epics, then Hollywood wouldn’t have long ago abandoned the genre, a staple of the feature film industry back in the days of Cinerama. Or was it Cinemascope? Don’t ask me. I wasn’t even alive. Or if I was, I was only just beginning to grasp the essentials of widescreen projection techniques, which was offered as an elective at the nursery school where I was then enrolled.

Makes no sense. It’s not as if “The Bible” got any help from TV critics. Its Metacritic scores averaged just 44, the low end of the “mixed reviews” range as measured by the review aggregation site. 

As a cable series, “The Bible” lacked the ready-made, large scale promotional platform and popular lead-in that can drive strong ratings for a new show on a major broadcast network, of the kind NBC was, for many years. 

And we all know better than to credit the mini-series’ success to its unembarrassed reverence for its sacred source material. After all, last year History had an even bigger hit with “Hatfields and McCoys” — and that was a bloody saga of trigger-happy mountain clans who were not big on turning the other cheek. 

Of course, “Hatfields and McCoys” did star Kevin Costner. No, he’s not still the leading male star in Hollywood — but nobody’s perfect. He’ll do for basic cable.

As for “The Bible’s” cast — aside from Miss Downey (Mother Mary), arguably still semi-famous from her long run on the CBS hit “Touched By an Angel,” it’s devoid of name actors. Unless you count series star Diogo Morgado (Jesus Christ). Mr. Morgado is indeed a household name, all up and down the western littoral of the Iberian Peninsula, in fact, in his native Portugal.

No critical love. No marketing oomph. No-name cast. Together equal — what else? — ratings smash! 

Probably just coincidence, but the same kind of paradox confounded Hollywood some years ago, as it pondered the improbable success of another biblical movie, “The Passion of the Christ.” Of course, that international blockbuster had movie icon Mel Gibson. Not on screen, no. But it did land Jim Caviezel for the lead role. CAVIEZEL. That’s C-a-v … 

And once Jim Caviezel was attached to star, it was practically inevitable that “The Passion of the Christ” would go on to become the all-time top-grossing R-rated movie in the U.S., and rake in over $600 million worldwide. As if. No, here again, we must admit, answers are elusive. 

Now and then a right-wing critic will come out of the woodwork to fantasize about some imaginary silent majority of viewers hungry for inspiring, all-ages popular entertainment. But if there was some vast, under-served market for bible stories, then, obviously, Hollywood would be producing them. After all, the entertainment business is a business, run by unsentimental capitalists, single-focused on their bottom lines. Capitalists don’t have ideological agendas, save, perhaps, for some minor few exceptions, like Big Oil … and Coal … the fossil fuel industry, let’s say. And Wall Street, of course. Yah, and the Health Care Lobby. Agribusiness and Big Pharma and the junk-food industry. Oh, and firearms manufacturers, along with other merchants of death — defense contractors and such. The objectively racist prison construction industry might have to be included. And — a biggie — the Corporate Media Structure. 

OK, but even if some capitalists — like, say, the Republican-leaning ones — have ideological agendas, that doesn’t mean they all do. Some capitalists do remain unencumbered by any ideological baggage that might deflect them from their undeviating course of profit-maximization. And your Hollywood capitalist would be of this type, a more pure strain of capitalist — almost, you might even say, a Randian. Pervaded as Hollywood is by near-Randians, it will, naturally, surprise some that it ultimately fell to an outsider — fellow by the name of John Aglialoro, a fitness equipment executive without a prior film credit to his name — to bring Ayn Rand’s own defining work “Atlas Shrugged” to the screen independently, after his efforts to secure backing for the project within Hollywood fell short after 20 years, a span which perhaps gives some idea of the sheer numbers of interested prospective collaborators a patient Mr. Aglialoro must have had to work his way through — Hollywood Randians, perhaps, who felt called by Rand’s powerful source material but couldn’t quite commit in the end to throwing themselves into the great work of producing the first screen adaptation of her enduringly popular literary monument to the spirit of free enterprise.

If this line of reasoning doesn’t ring entirely true, well, it may be that we are here faced with yet another insoluble paradox of the kind that bedevils decision-makers in today’s entertainment industry. At least there is one constant amidst the uncertainties that plague the industry: The business culture of Hollwyood is inveterately imitative, a milieu in which nothing worth making isn’t worth remaking, then being milked for, oh, V or VI sequels, then shamelessly ripped off by competitors, before — finally — being rebooted as an origins saga in prequel Parts -I through -III.

Some of the best minds in Hollywood may already be at work wrestling with the knotty conundrum of why the breakout success of “The Bible” will not have opened the floodgates to a tide of copycat biblical dramas engulfing the primetime schedules of the Big 4 networks — and I can tell you I don’t envy them. 


• Daniel Wattenberg can be reached at dwattenberg@washingtontimes.com.

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