“The Bible,” the History channel miniseries by “Survivor” creator Mark Burnett, drew the network’s biggest audience of the year in its premiere after a months-long campaign to promote the show to Christian audiences.
The first of five two-hour episodes drew 13.1 million viewers, New York-based History said yesterday in a statement. Last year’s premiere of “Hatfields & McCoys,” with 13.9 million, was the network’s most-watched program ever. History is part of A&E Television Networks LLC, owned jointly by Walt Disney Co. (DIS) and Hearst Corp.
Burnett, an avowed Christian, and his wife, “Touched by an Angel” star Roma Downey, shot the series over six months in Morocco and enlisted pastors Rick Warren and Joel Osteen, and Cardinal Donald Wuerl, Archbishop of Washington, to connect with Christian audiences. The, strategy pioneered by Mel Gibson with his theatrical film “The Passion of the Christ,” culminated with a presentation to 500 clergy on March 2.
“We believe our Bible series has the potential to reach not only those who already go to church but could reach a whole new generation of people who have never been to church,” Burnett said in a video posted on Google Inc. (GOOG)’s YouTube. “People that may never have read the Bible will get to see those Bible stories in this series.”
To promote the series, Burnett reached out to Protestant and Roman Catholic church leaders, touting the project as a teaching aid for use in sermons and weekly study groups. Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” cost $30 million and generated $612 million in worldwide ticket sales, according to Box Office Mojo.
Smaller faith-affirming films, such as “Fireproof” have also successfully based marketing on outreach to churches, said Ted Baehr, chairman of the Christian Film & Television Commission, a group that advises studios.
“Fireproof” was made for $500,000 and had sales of $33.5 million. Religious audiences trust a minister’s recommendation more than studio ads or reviews by mainstream critics, he said.
“The market exists. You’ve just got to reach them through the venues that they are using,” Baehr said. “You have to get to what they watch and where they go.”
At the March 2 meeting, Warren, head of Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, California, told the audience of about 500 he would shape his next five Sunday sermons around the series. He urged clergy, including others watching a webcast of the event, to do the same.
“Don’t miss this opportunity,” Warren said. “This is a wave. Part of leadership is catching the wave. God is about to do something really great.”
Episodes will air every week on History, culminating March 31, Easter Sunday. Lifetime, another A&E Television Networks channel, will air repeats of episodes.
The series was made for about $22 million, said Burnett, who also produces reality shows including “The Apprentice” and “The Voice” on Comcast Corp. (CMCSA)’s NBC and “Shark Tank” on Disney’s ABC. Burnett said in the video his success paved the way for him to produce the series and recruit History as a distribution partner.
“All of these No. 1 shows, five shows right now, that allowed us to go into the powers within Hollywood to say we wanted to make a faithful Bible miniseries,” Burnett said on a Feb. 12 webcast for pastors. “It takes a level of that success within the television business and film to have people pay attention and give you a chance.”
“We’ve told the stories of the Bible in a way to grab viewers’ attention and draw them in to want to know more,” Downey said in the video. “The footage is exciting, it’s compelling, poignant and powerful. Our hope is this series will reach millions of people around the world.”
The couple hired Portuguese TV star Diogo Morgado as Jesus, and used special effects firms that work on Hollywood films. In addition to producing and directing, Downey also stars as Mother Mary.
The series will also be shown outside the U.S., and DVDs be on sale in April, according to History. The scripts will bound together into a book and a portion will be edited into a theatrically released film. Burnett and Downey also plan to make the series available for religious education programs.
Disney, based in Burbank, California, gained 0.9 percent to $55.80 yesterday in New York. The stock has climbed 12 percent this year. Closely held Hearst is based in New York and is also a 20 percent partner in Disney’s ESPN.
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