According to Parents Television Council's sixth annual study of television and religion, the television networks are including more religion in their programming, but references to organized religion were overwhelmingly negative.
"Hollywood’s hostility toward religious institutions and the elements that constitute them (including clergy and devout laity) stands in stark contrast to the actual religiosity of the American public," the group says, pointing to a Harris poll that found 90% of Americans expressed a belief in God.
On the positive side, expressions of faith got slightly more positive treatment than negative, and negatives were fewer earlier in the night, when more children would be watching.
In all, 22.1% of the treatments were positive, 24.4% were negative, but the vast majority were neutral. That led one reporter to ask how that translated to overwelmingly negative. PTC responded that while TV appeared to be more open to general expressions of religious faith, organized religions and clergy continued to get hammered, particularly Catholics.
The content study, of a year's worth of prime time, found that NBC had the most "anti-religious" programming at 9.5 negative treatments for every positive. Second in the negative-to-positive ratio was Fox with 2.4 negative for every positive; followed by WB and ABC, tied at 1.2; UPN, 1; CBS with one negative for every two positive, and Pax, with no negative.
NBC took issue with its characterization as anti-religious. "Having not seen the content analysis we can not comment on the study itself, though we reject its conclusion," the network said in a statement. "Our programming reflects the diversity of our audience, which averages more than 10 million viewers per night and included more than 200 million viewers during the Olympics. It is never our intention to appear, nor do we accept the notion that we are, 'anti-religious."“Negative depictions of personal faith are systemic in much of the creative community,” Frank Wright, president of the National Religious Broadcasters, said during a telephone press conference. TV and film writers appear to be vying for an industry “merit badge for attacking religious faith.”
Wright didn’t know whether to blame overt hostility to religion or creative laziness. “It’s easy to create a depiction of later day Elmer Gantry as a straw man and knock him now.”
Regardless of the motivations, the consequence of overwhelmingly negative depictions could seed widespread antipathy towards people of faith throughout society. “This results in a dehumanization of people that tends to produce the potting soil that leads to persecution.” He compared the media climate towards religious to the degradation of Jews before the Holocaust or black Americans during slavery and Jim Crow.
Wright cautioned that he’s not accusing Hollywood of plotting similarly sinister action against religious people. “That would put us in with the black helicopter crowd who sees a conspiracy under every rock.”
PTC President Brent Bozell said there’s nothing wrong with occasional negative depictions of religion, but that the degree of unfavorable depictions today is way out of balance with Americans’ general positive outlook on faith and does not accurately reflect the role of religion in American life. “When overall coverage is negative, that coverage is out of sync with public opinion.” Currently the Catholic Church, still reeling from the clergy scandals, bears the brunt of snide jokes on TV but similar attacks were levied against fundamentalist Christians in years past.
Christians are easier game for these sort of characterizations, he surmised, because Jews and other religious minorities have suffered so much persecution in the past that unfavorable depictions would generate a torrent of backlash in society. Christian faith is due the same the level of respect, he said.