Report: TV Content Shows No Respect for Religion

Times Staff Writer

Leaders of The Parents Television Council today released a study of prime time programming that they say shows that Hollywood “has virtually no respect for religion.”

The study, put out in conjunction with the National Religious Broadcasters, counted 2,344 treatments of religion — such as the mention of prayer or the presence of God — from September 2003 to September 2004 and deemed 24.4% of them negative. Most were neutral, and 22.1% were positive.

Even so, Frank Wright, president of the NRB, called the negative portrayals “dehumanizing” and compared them to representations of Jews prior to the Holocaust, and blacks in the era of slavery. “Systematic negative portrayals of groups of people are always disturbing,” he said.

“They produce the potting soil that leads to persecution.”

The study calls NBC “by far the most anti-religious network” with 9.5 negative treatments for every positive one. Fox had 2.4 negatives for each positive. At the other end of the spectrum was Pax, which the Parents Council said had 90.7% positive depictions of religion. CBS was deemed more positive than negative by a margin of 2 to 1.

NBC was expected to issue a statement today. An ABC spokesman was unavailable and CBS declined to comment on the study.

A positive example cited was an episode of CBS’ “JAG,” in which a woman prayed for a man’s safety and also asked God to say hello to her deceased mother and tell her that she loves her.

A negative example was ABC’s “31st American Music Awards” when host Jimmy Kimmel gave the audience a brief list of rules. “And finally,” he said, “and this is a personal thing, no thanking God. God does not watch television. And if He did, He would not be watching this show. He would be watching ‘Tarzan’ on the WB.”

In another negative example, from NBC’s “Will and Grace,” the character Karen tries to cheer up Grace by saying, “Let’s go buy that historic church and turn it into a gay bar.”

In 2003, the PTC, which aims to protect children from indecency on television, filed a mountainous number of online complaints to the Federal Communications Commission, a figure that has become the subject of heated controversy.

PTC President L. Brent Bozell said the group had no similar activity in mind for the religion issue, but promised to take the findings to advertisers. “We will encourage advertisers to get behind those in the industry who want to do more positive story lines than what they’ve been doing. That won’t be new,” he said.

The report, “Faith in a Box: Entertainment Television and Religion,” is the sixth PTC study to look at religion on TV. The last one, from 1997, showed fewer, but more positive treatments of religion.

In a press conference, Wright blamed the negative portrayals on Hollywood’s creative community which he said is unfamiliar with the subject of faith. “It’s a long standing issue with Hollywood. I think the issue has to do with the makeup of persons in Hollywood and their own personal convictions. I believe a low percentage of people in Hollywood consider themselves to be people of faith.”

Bozell, a Catholic, said, “Is it because Hollywood is Jewish and taking care of its own? No, I don’t think that. In the popular culture of America, 99% of the public, and also in Hollywood, there is an understanding that respect is owed to Jews. It’s as simple as that. That same respect ought to be paid to other faiths as well.”

He said Hollywood is missing out on a marketing opportunity by ignoring the majority of Americans who, according to a 2003 Harris poll cited by the study, believe in God (90%) and the resurrection of Jesus Christ (80%).

“They’re blinding themselves, not seeing the forest for the trees when they dismiss the fact that this country is fed up with Hollywood’s assault on families,” Bozell said. “Nobody, but nobody, saw the success of ‘The Passion of the Christ’ coming. They don’t understand there’s a hunger for positive messages.”

To obtain the data, PTC analysts reviewed prime-time programming on the seven commercial broadcast networks. Religious subject matter was divided into one of five categories: faith, institution and doctrine, laity, clergy and miscellaneous. The analysts entered each instance into a computerized Entertainment Tracking System.

Some academics have criticized previous PTC data, saying the group’s definitions are imprecise and they need more coders to check one another’s judgments.

While the PTC focused on the individual networks in television programming and religion, the study also showed that overall religious content on prime time television was balanced with most of it being neither positive nor negative. PTC director of research Melissa Caldwell said the more specific the religious reference, the more negative it became. The 8 p.m. hour was the most “pro-religion” time slot, followed by increasingly negative treatments into the evening.

The study drew immediate response from Jeff Jarvis, an internet executive and blogger who, earlier this month, was the first to uncover data showing that nearly all online complaints received by the FCC in 2003 had been filed by a small number of PTC members. The figures reflected so-called “formal complaints” submitted to the FCC’s web site as opposed to letters, phone calls and faxes to the commission from listeners or viewers generally complaining about TV and radio programming.

Of the PTC study, Jarvis said, “Who are they to say what the public wants? They don’t speak for America. Second, what if a lot of entertainment is negative about religion? So what? We have free speech here “

The group’s findings come at a time when Hollywood executives are feeling an increasingly chilly climate for edgy television. Based largely on PTC complaints, the FCC has levied record fines against media corporations.

However, Jonathan Rintels, president and executive director of the Center for Creative Voices in Media, said the PTC is losing its perception as an influential institution as a result of the complaint data revelations.

“The real statistics that matter to the networks come from the biggest hit of the season- ‘Desperate Housewives,’ ” Rintels said. “It’s not on the Parents Television Council’s approved list. (Yet) it doesn’t seem to have any great impact on the public watching it.

“So what is the true measure of public opinion?”