TV Fails to Show Role of Religion in American Life

The Parents Television Council, a media watchdog group, has released a study on how religion is depicted on primetime broadcast TV. Television critic Andrew Wallenstein agrees with the study's findings that TV shows fail to show how religion is central to many Americans.

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ALEX CHADWICK, host:

From NPR News, it's DAY TO DAY.

There's a lot of Christmas on TV around now. Most of the time, though, broadcast TV is pretty godless. At least according to the Parents Television Council. That's the conservative Christian media watchdog group that made its name filing decency complaints. Still, on the subject of religion on TV, critic Andrew Wallenstein says the council has a point.

ANDREW WALLENSTEIN: The Parents Television Council has counted more than 1,400 depictions of religion on primetime broadcast TV between September 2005 and August of this year. That's way too low for the PTC. Last time they checked, in 2004, religion showed up nearly twice as often.

I tend to agree that TV doesn't represent religion enough, given how large it looms in American life. Maybe that's why many of the most glowing reviews I gave this past year were to shows where religion played a central theme.

My very first review of 2006 was for the short-lived NBC drama series "The Book of Daniel." In this scene, the protagonist, a pill-popping minister played by Aidan Quinn, hallucinates a conversation with Jesus himself, played by Garret Dillahunt.

(Soundbite of TV show, "The Book of Daniel")

Mr. AIDAN QUINN (Actor): (As Daniel Webster) You know, I only take them occasionally.

Mr. GARRET DILLAHUNT (Actor): (As Jesus Christ) Right.

Mr. QUINN: Could you fit more judgment into that right?

Mr. DILLAHUNT: Actually, yes, I could.

(Soundbite of laughter)

WALLENSTEIN: "The Book of Daniel" is noted in the Parents Television Council's report, but not in a flattering light. You see, the PTC doesn't count just how many times religion was represented, but also how it was represented. The report classifies each individual mention of God or religion in one of four categories: positive, negative, neutral, or mixed. Much to the chagrin of the PTC, only 34 percent of the references were labeled positive.

But when I dug deeper into the study and looked at how specific examples were categorized, the study seemed kind of absurd. I mean I don't expect a drug-addicted clergyman to get a gold star, but virtually any instance where religion is not depicted in the most flattering light draws a red flag.

Plus, God apparently has no sense of humor, according to the PTC. A scene from "The Simpsons" in which the devout Flanders family is playing a game labeled Christian Clue is marked neutral.

What bugs me most about the report is it has no sense of moral ambiguity. It's as if anything that isn't as squeaky clean as "Touched by an Angel" is worthy of damnation. Another question. Why is it that this study only focuses on broadcast TV? Many other PTC studies obsess over how depraved the cable networks are, yet they weren't included in this study.

That's a shame, because some of my favorites were on cable this year. From "Sleeper Cell" - Showtime's chronicle of a Muslim FBI agent - to "The Monastery" - a TLC examination of a Benedictine order. And then there was the A&E reality show "God or the Girl," which explored the temptations of aspiring priests, like the one heard from here named Dan DeMatte.

(Soundbite of TV show, "God or the Girl")

Mr. DAN DEMATTE: Of course I'm attracted to Allie. She's a very gorgeous girl. And of course there's times that, you know, I just want to go up and hug her and kiss her, and that's lusting after her and that's something that is - it's sick.

WALLENSTEIN: I bet the Parents Television Council would grade this comment a negative, but I'm not sure why. I'm no biblical scholar, but last I cracked the Good Book, saints and sinners seemed to be there in equal measure. And as this flawed study fails to appreciate, it's the interplay between the two that makes for great television.

(Soundbite of music)

CHADWICK: Andrew Wallenstein is an editor for the Hollywood Reporter and a regular contributor to DAY TO DAY.

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