Religion Found to Play a Minor Role in TV Shows : Entertainment: Team of scholars examines 100 productions on major networks and finds spiritual life lacking in most characters.

From Associated Press

Researchers have found that religious realities of the country are virtually blanked out on prime-time television programs. The religious sides of people rarely get mentioned.

In contrast to the prevalence of religion in America and widespread involvement in it, it was found to be “mostly invisible” in the TV portrayals.

After examining 100 productions on ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox TV networks, a team of scholars in communications, psychology and psychiatry from three universities concluded that overall, network television presents the message that religion is not very important because it is rarely shown as a factor in the lives of TV characters.

That image does not stack up with consistent survey findings that 94% of Americans believe in God, and three-fourths pray daily and consider religion important in their lives.


In the TV portrayals, about the only prayer depicted is a “Thank God!” after a character narrowly escapes disaster, the researchers found.

In such instances, the implication is that “God is last resort” in a crisis when situations seem hopeless, the report says. “Characters rarely displayed personal prayer behaviors as an indicator of their religious faith.”

Summing up, the report says: “Television’s treatment of religion tends to be best characterized as abuse through neglect.”

The study was made by communications professor Thomas Skill of the University of Dayton, psychologist John Lyons of Northwestern University and psychiatrist David Larson of Duke University Medical Center.


Commissioned by a conservative watchdog group, the American Family Assn., based in Tupelo, Miss., they conducted a systematic content analysis of network fictional programming for one month in 1990.

Recently released results showed that only 5.4% of the characters had an identifiable religious affiliation--although 89% of Americans claim a religious affiliation.

TV characters almost never were shown attending worship, or speaking about it. But in reality, Gallup polls find that 42% of Americans--105 million--attend church or synagogue each week.

Across the 68 hours of TV programming reviewed, 115 behaviors were classified as religious or spiritual, usually brief statements or actions. Of these, just over half were termed clearly negative or indefinite.


“Overall, characters rarely acknowledge or reflect a belief in God or Jesus and on the occasions when they do make such references, those comments tend to be ambiguous,” the report says.

It notes that in the shows analyzed, religious images, artifacts or rituals turned up in 215 cases only as background, indicating that religion and spirituality are not commonly part of the action.

“However, on the few occasions when religion is part of the television landscape it is generally presented in a positive light,” the report says.

In general, it concluded that “religion is a rather invisible institution on fictional network television. The religious side of people’s lives are infrequently presented. Few characters have an identifiable religious affiliation and even fewer engage in prayer or devotional services.”


However, “while television may be ignoring the religious aspect of human experience in the stories that are told, it does not overtly attack or disparage religion or spirituality,” the report says.

“In the few cases where religion was emphasized, it was treated for the most part with careful reverence. However, that treatment tends to be from a rather narrow perspective . . . as a personal, private activity and religion is rarely central to the story line or theme of a program.”