Why would comedian Jeff Foxworthy, a devout Christian, initially turn down an offer to host a TV game show about the Bible?
The answer is his eternal salvation.
“I didn’t want to be the guy standing in line in hell saying, ‘It was the game show, right?’” Foxworthy said. “I told my wife I didn’t think I should do it.”
He soon reconsidered, stepping into the role of emcee for Game Show Network’s “American Bible Challenge,” which has been billed as a show “3,400 years in the making,” and now thinks he’s probably in the clear come Judgment Day.
The show broke ratings records at the cable network with 5.3 million cumulative viewers in its first week and, equally important to Foxworthy, earned a thumbs-up from the God-fearing community.
“I didn’t think it would be the secular world but the religious world that would say, ‘Hey, you can’t do a show like that,’” Foxworthy said. “Thankfully that hasn’t turned out to be the case.”
Because religion can be such a controversial topic, Foxworthy said it was vital to get the tone right — reverent and respectful — while still making a compelling, watchable piece of entertainment.
GSN, whose executives said they knew they were taking a risk, put “American Bible Challenge” through an especially long and rigorous development process. What they started with — a somewhat stiff and dry “Bible Bowl-ish” show — is not where they ended up.
“American Bible Challenge,” for instance, has its own on-stage choir singing traditional hymns and other religious songs but with a modern twist. Its multi-generational players, with catchy team names like Gospel Geezers, win money for charities such as cancer research, teen crisis centers and food pantries. They don’t keep any of the winnings themselves.
Bible trivia categories include “In the name of the Lord of the Rings,” in which players have to identify quotes as coming from Scripture or J.R.R. Tolkien; “Faithbook,” which imagines biblical figures’ status updates; and “CSI: Holy Land,” a sort of biblical crimes whodunit.
The category “My Tweet Lord” includes Bible-themed hashtags, and “The Eye of the Tebow” quizzes players on psalms and sayings written on football star Tim Tebow’s face. Other categories are “The Real Housewives of the OT (Old Testament)” and, a Foxworthy suggestion, “Biblical Rednecks.”
“Kids Sayeth the Cutest Things” is a regular segment that features videos of adorable tots who’ve made a mark spouting biblical stories on YouTube.
GSN executives said they have broken a number of tried-and-true game show rules with “American Bible Challenge.” Namely, the top of the hour-long show airing 8 p.m. Thursdays is devoted to each trio of contestants and their charity of choice. That also includes, inevitably, a discussion of their faith.
“You’re supposed to get to the game immediately — the more game the better,” said Amy Introcaso-Davis, the channel’s executive vice president of programming and development. “But when we tested this, viewers really responded to the personal stories. They wanted to know about these people and their mission. That made it more emotional.”
The program also features the contestants cramming for the “Final Revelation Round” during backstage Bible-study sessions, a sight probably never seen on a TV game show before. Teams play for $20,000 during each episode in a tournament format. Winners will advance and later compete for $100,000 for their charities.
GSN execs figured “American Bible Challenge” could have broad appeal, considering the Bible is consistently the bestselling book in America with 25 million copies sold a year. And being a family friendly network, execs said they often heard that viewers wanted more programming they could watch with their kids, said Stephen Croncota, the network’s chief marketing officer and executive vice president.
“We wanted it to be inclusionary with the charitable aspect, empowering people to do good for others, imparting those kinds of values,” Croncota said.
Because of the response, there’s already interest in a second season, GSN execs said, and there will be licensing and product tie-ins. Online and digital game extensions have registered more than 1 million players.
Rob Kerby, a senior editor at the popular spiritual online community Beliefnet, went to observe the Dallas auditions for “American Bible Challenge” and said he was impressed by the breadth of wannabe contestants. Rapping cowboys, three generations of one family, Pentecostals, Baptists, older trivia buffs and kids and teenagers showed up, he said.
He thought there would be audience interest in the show, though he questioned the network about going out on a limb.
“I’d said, ‘What if it blows up in your face?’ ‘What if people think it’s inappropriate?’” Kerby said recently. “The fact that it’s not sponsored by a church, that it’s not airing on a religious network, I think is pretty remarkable.”
Foxworthy said he’s not surprised networks haven’t attempted a program like this before but thinks it has come along at a good time.
“There’s probably a lot of self-examination going on in our country right now, and the truth is the Bible was written as much for us today as it was for people thousands of years ago,” he said. “It’s all in how you communicate, and if you make it contemporary, people are interested. I think it has legs.”