How the History Channel Turned ‘The Bible’ Into a Blockbuster

Jesus Christ, played by Diogo Morgado Courtesy Joe Alblas via The History Channel

Jesus Christ is poised to become a superstar once again. This time on basic cable, thanks in part to a clever marketing strategy.

On Sunday night, the History Channel racked up huge ratings with the first installment of a five-part miniseries called The Bible. The first two-hour episode attracted 13.1 million viewers, making it the most-watched entertainment telecast on all of cable so far in 2013. The series, which features CGI-enhanced Biblical stories ranging from Noah’s ark to Jesus’s crucifixion, will air its final episode on Easter Sunday.

The Bible is the creation of actor Roma Downey and her husband, producer Mark Burnett, whose past credits include Survivor, The Voice, and Sarah Palin’s Alaska. “Today, more people are discussing God’s chosen people—Moses and Abraham—in one day than ever before,” the show’s creators noted yesterday in a press release.

The huge opening night can be credited, in part, to a savvy marketing campaign by Burnett and History executives. According to the Christian Science Monitor, Downey and Burnett built anticipation for the miniseries by previewing it for religious leaders at several megachurches. Along the way, the creators picked up endorsements from key religious tastemakers, including Joel Osteen.

The day before the premiere, Pastor Rick Warren of the Saddleback Church in California treated his followers to a 90-minute behind-the-scenes feature on the making of The Bibleaccording to the Christian Post.

In the meantime, the World Evangelical Alliance (a “global ministry working with local churches around the world to join in common concern to live and proclaim the Good News of Jesus in their communities,” according to its website) has thrown its support behind the series. On the WEA’s site, Chief Executive Officer Geoff Tunnicliffe writes that the series is “compelling, gritty at times and spiritually moving.”

According to the Christian Post, the WEA has been running ads for The Bible in Times Square since before Christmas.

The success is likely to prompt imitators, predicts James Poniewozik of Time. “Those are the kinds of numbers that get TV executives’ attention, and ‘attention’ in the TV business means copying,” he writes. “Last year, History pulled meganumbers with Hatfields and McCoys; now NBC is developing a Hatfields and McCoys series. So I wouldn’t be surprised to see more religious epics coming to TV—stories aimed, like the Bible miniseries, at the comfort zone of believers.”

The previews, no doubt, will be coming to a megachurch near you.

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