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Tapping into the passion of television viewers

Times Staff Writer

If Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” has a halo effect, its glow may be most evident in a round of television programs seeking to capitalize both on the film’s controversy and its runaway box-office success.

Much of the small-screen effort seems focused on trying to reach the same audiences that have propelled Gibson’s film to nearly $375 million in worldwide grosses.

In the wake of “The Passion’s” success, ABC News’ “Peter Jennings Reporting” tweaked a long-in-the-works special about the life of Paul, adding an additional hour to more directly focus on the final days of Christ. The program will air Monday.

CBS on Sunday reran just the second part of its 2000 movie “Jesus,” the segment that dealt with the crucifixion. CBS didn’t have to move or cancel anything to find a slot for “Jesus,” but it was an obvious choice, said spokesman Chris Ender. “There was an existing opening for a Sunday movie, but without question the box-office success of ‘The Passion’ and the country’s reaction influenced the timing of the scheduling,” he said.

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And then there’s “South Park.” The Comedy Central animated series, which has made its mark with off-color parodies, is hustling to air its own “Passion” tie-in tonight -- though, clearly, with an episode title of “The Passion of the Jew,” the show is not aiming at the movie’s Christian fan base.

Despite the surge of interest, programming around a phenomenon and capitalizing on it are two very different matters. “The Passion” movie may have grossed an additional $12 million this past weekend, but the “Jesus” TV movie attracted just 7.5 million viewers, finishing in 59th place for the week.

While Easter programs are a springtime television staple, for ABC’s Jennings, the controversy over “The Passion of the Christ” was a stroke of good timing. Since the success of his two-hour program on the historical Jesus in 2000, Jennings and his ABC News team have been working on a two-hour documentary on the early days of Christianity, as told through the story of Paul. But by the time the program was completed one year ago, the Iraq war was on and there was no room on the ABC schedule, so the network decided to hold it.

Now, with the “Passion” movie the subject of so much debate, not only does the documentary get a timely peg when it airs Monday, but ABC, struggling this season with its regular series, decided to expand it to a full three hours. The first hour will reprise some of the material from the report that aired four years ago looking at what historians do and don’t believe about Jesus, with a particular emphasis on the issues surrounding Jesus’ trial, as portrayed in “The Passion of the Christ.”

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“We don’t know what happened to Jesus when he was in Jerusalem for Passover, there is no certainty,” said Tom Yellin, executive producer of “Peter Jennings Reporting.” “Our role is to lay out the possibilities, and the evidence.”

Jennings has joked in the halls of ABC that he is flattered that Gibson has jumped on the ABC bandwagon of interest in the topic. The network has carved out somewhat of a niche for itself with its religious-themed news programs, including one last fall that looked at the history behind some of the theories about Mary Magdalene and the Holy Grail, which are controversially explored in the popular novel “The Da Vinci Code”

“We are encouraged,” Yellin said. “Our interest in this goes way back and it turns out to be touching a similar nerve as the movie.” The last two hours of “Peter Jennings Reporting: Jesus and Paul -- The Word and the Witness” look at how Christianity “managed to survive despite obstacles and reasons for it not to have,” Yellin said.

At the other end of the spectrum, “South Park” seeks to poke fun at the charges of anti-Semitism Gibson’s film provoked even before it was released. Co-creator Matt Stone, who was still working on the episode Monday, said that once it became such a cultural phenomenon, the film was an obvious choice for an episode of the irreverent animated series. “Combining pop culture with that religious religiosity, there’s great comedy there,” Stone added.

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Television’s interest in all things Jesus-related doesn’t end with those two shows.

PAX TV had some success a few weeks ago with a making-of special about “The Passion,” produced by Gibson’s company, while both CNN and NBC’s “Dateline” have aired specials about the film.

The History Channel also has a night of “Passion"-related programming April 8. “The Trial of Jesus” reconstructs what the channel calls “the scene of the crime” to examine Jesus’ trial and execution, how it has been reported and the reservations of some biblical historians about the accuracy of Gospel stories.

It’s followed later that night by “Pontius Pilate: The Man Who Killed Christ,” which profiles the Roman bureaucrat who plays a central part in the crucifixion.

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And on April 7, PBS presents “Secrets of the Dead: Shroud of Christ?” The network claims it will offer fresh forensic evidence that will challenge the 1988 carbon dating that argued the Shroud of Turin was a Renaissance forgery and will argue instead it could be 2,000 years old.


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