- Deseret News - Friday, March 6, 2015

Shortly before the release of the film “Son of God” in 2014, Mark Burnett and Roma Downey visited Liberty University in Lynchburg, VA.

During a speech to the students at the Christian university, Mr. Burnett, an accomplished television producer, discussed the opposition the married couple felt when they started pitching a miniseries based on the Bible.

Mr. Burnett was told that the idea was “crazy,” according to the Liberty Champion, a student newspaper.

As it turned out, viewers — 100 million of them — did watch “The Bible” when the 10-part miniseries aired on the History Channel in March 2013.

“We felt that it came in as a calling, and so in those moments when we did feel challenged, or we did feel fearful, we trusted,” Ms. Downey told the Liberty students. “We trusted that God had us, he held us. We’ve heard it said that God doesn’t always call the qualified, but he qualifies the called.”

The feature-length film “Son of God,” which evolved from the work done on “The Bible,” opened in theaters in February 2014 and earned almost $60 million, according to boxofficemojo.com. Now, Mr. Burnett, Ms. Downey and their partners at production company Lightworkers Media are bringing to network television a 12-week miniseries called “A.D.: The Bible Continues,” which premieres Easter Sunday on NBC.

Both “Son of God” and “A.D.” are products of the success of “The Bible,” which covered Genesis to Revelation in 10 hour-long episodes and dramatized several Bible stories, including Noah’s ark, the Exodus, Sampson and Delilah, David and Goliath, and, of course, the birth and life of Christ.

“The beautiful thing about the Lightworkers brand is that what the organization has produced has been the type of content that people across the spectrum of faith in America have not only appreciated, but turned out in record numbers to view,” said Johnnie Moore, chief of staff for Mark Burnett.

According to the History Channel, 100 million people viewed the 10-hour series worldwide. The first two episodes, which premiered March 3, 2013, drew 13.1 million viewers, reported Deadline.com, which concluded that the successful debut “proves the enormous potential of religious-themed entertainment programming aimed at Christian audiences.”

Mr. Burnett is the producer of the hit TV series “Survivor,” “Shark Tank” and “The Voice.” Ms. Downey, known for her role in “Touched by an Angel,” played Mary the mother of Christ in both “The Bible” and “Son of God.”

As recounted in an interview with ABC News, Mr. Burnett grew up watching Cecil B. DeMille’s “The Ten Commandments.” Years later, he sat down to watch it with his own children, who found the film lackluster in comparison to modern-day special effects.

“That movie is beautiful, but it’s 50 years old,” Mr. Burnett told ABC News. “What we’ve done for 2013 is brought fresh visual life into the greatest story every told.”

According to ABC News, Mr. Burnett and Ms. Downey hired over 40 theologians and academic specialists to help carry out the $22 million project.

The series combined live-action cinematography with computer-generated special effects. Filming commenced in 2009 in Morocco and in areas of the Middle East.

Melissa Henson, grass-roots director for the Parents Television Council, said she and her team watched the “Bible” miniseries closely to determine its appropriateness for family audiences, especially because the program targeted religious families in particular. The content and the viewers’ responses surprised her.

“What they found appealing about it was that it was a respectful representation of books that they hold sacred,” Ms. Henson said. “Quite often in the entertainment industry when you see religious matters dealt with, it’s not in a respectable manner, but this show generally was.”

Because the Bible itself chronicles many violent and troublesome events, Ms. Henson was apprehensive about the series’ visual representation of more challenging material.

“The Old Testament has wars and battles and all sorts of scenes, even adultery,” Ms. Henson said. “There’s lots of scenes that they dealt with in this miniseries, but they handled it well. The overall message of it being about faith and those sorts of dominant themes were certainly communicated very well.”

The episodes were rated TV-14 for violence. Common Sense Media likewise recommended the series for those age 14 and older.

According to the ABC News interview, Ms. Downey and Mr. Burnett did a prescreening of “The Bible” at their kids’ school. Afterward, Ms. Downey asked her children how their peers liked it. The majority of their replies were the same: “That’s really cool.”

“We felt, ‘Hey, we got something right,’” Ms. Downey told ABC News. “Because you know what? The Bible is really cool.”

Both “The Bible” and “Son of God” are available for streaming on Netflix and Amazon Instant Video, and also for purchase on DVD.

“A.D.: The Bible Continues” will portray the events after the crucifixion of Christ. It premieres Sunday, April 5, on NBC.

“To be on one of the three major iconic American networks with programming like this is probably near historic,” Mr. Moore said. “It’s a really, really amazing thing that on Easter Sunday, on NBC, on prime-time, America will be seeing the story of the birth of his church.”

Taylor Hintz and Aaron Shill contributed to this story.

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