Controversy Over Depiction of Christianity Dogs NBC’s Drama

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NEW YORK ( -- NBC’s newest drama about an all-too-human Episcopal priest continues to spark controversy over how Christianity is depicted in pop culture.

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As the network readied tonight’s premiere of the religious-themed “The Book of Daniel,” it has had to fend off accusations from the conservative American Family Association, which called the show “anti-Christian,” and find alternate stations to air the show in markets where affiliates bailed.

Talking to Jesus
The hour-long drama stars Aidan Quinn as Daniel Webster, an Episcopal priest living in suburban New York with an addiction to pills, an alcoholic wife, a gay son and a brother who made off with millions of the parish's dollars. He also has face-to-face conversations with Jesus, who plays what is essentially the best-friend role. The show replaces “Inconceivable” in the 10 p.m. hour.

This week, AFA Chairman Donald Wildmon crowed over decisions by the NBC affiliates WTWO in Terre Haute, Ind., and KARK in Little Rock, Ark., to drop the show. (Both stations are owned by Nexstar Broadcasting.) The NBC affiliate in Wichita, Kan., has also opted to pre-empt the premiere.

Picked up by WB affiliate
In Little Rock, Equity Broadcasting’s WB affiliate KWBF picked it up instead. “NBC asked if we would carry the show and I agreed,” said Neal Ardman, VP-television for Equity Broadcasting. “My belief is that viewers should be allowed to decide what they care to watch. I think it is foolish for TV stations to bow down to pressure groups no matter how noble the cause may seem.”

The general manager of one NBC affiliate said he suspects up to 10 stations may eventually shun the program, although those decisions were likely to be announced as late as possible on Friday so NBC doesn't have time to find another station in the market to air it, as it did in Little Rock.

The AFA has blasted the show’s content -- which it said is written by “a practicing homosexual” and features an “unconventional Jesus” -- as well as NBC’s ability to sell advertising in it. The network, Mr. Wildmon said in an e-mail to AFA members, will fill the ad time with “‘distressed merchandise’ ads which are sold at pennies on the dollar of the going rate and with ‘make good’ ads which bring no money to the network.”

NBC didn’t respond specifically to AFA’s comments on the network’s ad sales but an executive inside NBC acknowledged that some advertisers are taking a wait-and-see approach to the controversial show.

Ratings rule
FX has faced similar situations with such edgy programming as “Nip/Tuck” but has managed to sell out the shows because of their strong ratings, said Bruce Leftkowicz, exec VP-entertainment sales, FX.

“Whenever there’s a bit of controversial content there’s going to be some backlash one side or another -- it’s just a question of what’s your threshold for absorbing the PR backlash,” said Larry Novenstern, exec VP-director of national electronic media, at Publicis’ Optimedia.

AFA isn’t the only group weighing in. The Episcopal Diocese of Washington has created a as a as a place for people to talk about their feelings about the show.

'Wildmon con'
“Don’t let Wildmon con you into thinking he speaks for Episcopalians,” said Jim Naughton, director of communications for the D.C.-based diocese. Mr. Naughton said a pair of priests from All Saints Church in Pasadena, Calif., were advisors on the show; “Daniel” creator Jack Kenny has already weighed in on the blog.

NBC’s not the first network to play the God card. ABC aired the short-lived “Nothing Sacred” in 1997, CBS had “Joan of Arcadia” and “Touched by an Angel” and The WB airs “7th Heaven.” Even NBC’s “Three Wishes,” while not overtly religious, starred contemporary Christian singer Amy Grant on a mission to better people’s lives by granting wishes.

On “Daniel,” NBC issued a statement that said, “We’re confident that once audiences view this quality drama themselves they’ll appreciate this thought-provoking examination of one American family.”

“I honestly don’t think it’s going to be nearly as controversial as some people may now be afraid of,” Mr. Quinn told CNN this week. “It just has the courage to deal with some of the real issues that go on in people’s lives.”

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