Are TV networks tuning out religion?
One of the entertainment industry's biggest watchdog groups says yes, although it gives reality shows high marks for showing frequent, unscripted outbursts of faith.
A study released Thursday by the Parents Television Council, a frequent critic of the TV industry over such issues as broadcast indecency, found that prime-time shows in the last year dealt with religion half as much as the year before. When they did, the Los Angeles-based group said, religion was cast in negative light more than one-third of the time.
The council said all faiths were included in their survey and that negligent and negative treatment of people of faith was out of touch with the strong religious beliefs of most Americans.
"The broadcast entertainment industry is completely disconnected from American public opinion," said L. Brent Bozell, the group's president.
But Bozell praised reality TV programming as one of the few places in prime time where religious views were aired openly and without scorn. According to the study, 95% of negative treatment of religion on the networks took place in scripted television, with 58% of positive treatments in reality TV.
"In reality television people speak their mind freely, but in scripted shows the Hollywood writers present only what is on TV," Bozell said.
The study was the council's seventh annual report on the subject. This year, the group pointed an angry finger at the Fox network, specifically such shows as "The Family Guy" and "House," that it said consistently mocked religion and people of faith. A Fox spokesman declined to comment.
One example cited in "House" involved lead character Dr. Gregory House, played by Hugh Laurie, telling a religious patient that he was either psychotic or a scam artist for believing that he talked with God.
Some religious scholars, however, argue that such depictions don't harm religion but instead bring it into the public dialogue.
Jon R. Stone, a professor at Cal State Long Beach who co-authored "Prime-time Religion: An Encyclopedia of Religious Broadcasting," said that depictions of pedophile priests -- a favorite of shows such as NBC's "Law & Order" -- actually helped viewers work out their own ideas about the role of clergy in society.
"TV reflects society back at itself and sometimes society doesn't want to see itself," Stone said. "TV would be boring if it only showed religion in a positive light -- there would be no tension, no conflict -- no reason for the story to be told."
Network television may be one of the few places in America where religion is in decline.
Attendance at mega-churches such as Pastor Rick Warren's Saddleback Church in Orange County is booming, while religions such as Mormonism and Pentecostalism are attracting members in droves. A recent study by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life said 78% of Americans believed that the Bible is the word of God, a figure that is virtually unchanged from when the poll began 40 years ago.
The report's methodology involved gathering a group of analysts this fall to watch nearly 2,300 hours of TV containing more than 1,400 treatments of religion. If a character so much as uttered "Thank God" or gathered family members to say grace, it was likely to be chalked up as a positive treatment.
"There is, by a necessity, a certain amount of over simplification," said Melissa Caldwell, the council's senior director of programs. "We do have to boil it down by its essence."