History Channel's 'The Bible' Is a Marketing Miracle

History Channel’s new miniseries is loud and bloody. It’s also a marketing miracle
Photograph by Joe Alblas/History Channel

It’s a tense night in Sodom. God’s judgment has arrived, and fire rains down from the skies. The beleaguered, henpecked Lot, a nephew of Abraham, shuffles two mysterious Jedi-like figures into his home. A group of armed Sodomites soon bursts through the door and demands that the men be given up. One of the “Jedis” unsheathes two swords and swiftly dismembers the men.

The scene ends the first episode of a new, 10-part miniseries on the History Channel called The Bible, which garnered 14.1 million viewers last week—more than any other show on cable television in 2013. Produced by Mark Burnett, the reality-TV pioneer best known for Survivor, The Apprentice, and Shark Tank, and his wife, Touched by an Angel actor Roma Downey (who also plays the Virgin Mary), the miniseries appears to have been conceived primarily for religious audiences—or at least those knowledgeable of scripture. It’s also packaged with enough bloodlust to capture channel surfers. In that regard, the series resembles Mel Gibson’s 2004 film, The Passion of the Christ, a movie bloggers called The Jesus Chainsaw Massacre—and which raked in more than $600 million at the box office.

Burnett hasn’t just re-created Gibson’s righteous bloodshed, he’s also adopted The Passion’s marketing methods. The producers linked up with faith-based groups, distributed study guides, and previewed the series at churches. They courted big-name evangelical figures. Discussing The Bible with his congregation in March, Saddleback Church Pastor Rick Warren declared, “God is about to do something really great.” Judging by the show’s initial popularity, its marketers deserve a prodigal feast.

The series begins with a bearded Noah aboard a listing ark during a tempest shouting the story of Adam and Eve to his passengers. If the History Channel is to be believed, there is no shortage of shouting in the Bible. Later in the story, an obese Herod, covered with leeches, shouts at a Jewish rebel: “I built the holy temple!” Then he stabs the prisoner in the neck for good measure.

As a work of narrative storytelling, The Bible falls short. The characters are just as one-dimensional as the ones described in a Sunday school fable, only angrier. And at 10 hours, the miniseries is more of a holy highlights reel than a coherent story. Like an endless film trailer, it’s replete with hurried voice-over (provided by actor Keith David), manufactured suspense, and glimpses of major plot points.

Of course, the filmmakers had to do some pruning—so no Job suffering at the hands of God or Jonah being swallowed by the whale. Things slow down, thankfully, to a regular pace once Jesus arrives in Episode Five. And there are some satisfying parts along the way. In one scene, a dying Samson (played by Game of Thrones’ Nonso Anozie) shares his final moments with his mother, in the wake of his destruction of a Philistine temple. It’s a rare human moment amid the rush of almighty events.

The miniseries cost $22 million, paltry compared with the $200 million HBO spent on the 2010 war epic The Pacific. And there are reports that Burnett will cut The Bible down to a feature film. Whether or not the story profits from a shorter running time is uncertain. The bottom line certainly will.

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