In Reaching Millennial Women, Spirituality Trumps Religion

Universal themes of faith used to gain younger audiences
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Millennial women are spending less time sitting in their local church pews and a lot more time giving the proverbial “like” to Facebook statuses. But that’s not stopping makers of faith-based programming from trying to reach them, and in various cases succeeding.

According to a Pew Research survey this year, 29% of millennials, ages 18-33, consider themselves religiously unaffiliated. Despite this shift towards religious disaffection in young people, Lifetime Network’s youngest skewing program is reality series Preachers’ Daughters, which senior VP of nonfiction programming Eli Lehrer says has a median age of 27. The series, which has wrapped its second season, tells the story of four young women dealing with the obligations of having parents who lead entire congregations.

To connect with their young viewers, Lifetime encourages the stars of Daughters to tweet along with fans. Lehrer says the show is usually ranked within the top 20 most social shows on Twitter. Daughters may have more than 19,000 followers on the social networking site, but cast member Kolby Koloff has more than 52,000. On her account she retweets fans’ comments and replies to their messages.

The network will also premiere another reality show, The Sisterhood, which follows five twenty-something women deciding whether they want to become nuns, on Nov. 25, and The Red Tent, a two-night biblical miniseries based on the 1997 novel of the same name, on Dec. 7.

For Sisterhood, Lifetime went inside convents in upstate New York, Chicago, and Walton, Kent. to see the stars’ journey towards taking—or not taking—the vows of poverty, chastity and obedience.

Lehrer expects young women to tune into the program not for the religious undertones, but to witness the path of someone they may connect with. “The fact that we have women that are almost proxies for the viewer, I’m hoping makes it more accessible,” he says. “A 25-year-old woman who would never consider doing this maybe is interested in the psychology of the women we have on the show who are doing it.”

Meanwhile, Oxygen is also trying its own take, producing faith-based reality content for women to see themselves, and those around them, in. Next year the network will debut a show starring millennial pastor Rich Wilkerson, who officiated at Kanye West and Kim Kardashian’s wedding in May.

“I think they’re going to find him incredibly relatable,” says Rod Aissa, Oxygen executive VP of original programming and development, of the denim-wearing preacher. “Someone like him exists in their friend group probably right now. So there’s going to be less of an obstacle to get to his methods.”

Oxygen’s The Wilkersons (working title at presstime) falls into line with the spiritualityover-religion theme of the net’s digitalfriendly Preachers of L.A, whose season 2 premiere improved triple digits above the time-period average and has more full-episode streams per week in-season than any Oxygen original series. In 2015 the franchise opens in the Midwest with Preachers of Detroit.

“Young women are on this quest to explore spirituality and explore faith,” says Aissa, adding that 72% of millennials see themselves as spiritual, citing a 2010 study from publisher Lifeway Christian Resource. “And Preachers of L.A. was just one of those avenues. It was less about religion for us and more about challenging the way you see the world, the way you experience your spirituality or your faith.”

A challenge for both Oxygen and Lifetime, however, will be that neither can track how many viewers are tuning in specifically for the religious bend of their programs. Since Nielsen does not include religious affiliation when measuring ratings demographics, neither network is privy to those stats, nor is the National Religious Broadcasters association.

Aissa believes that multiplatform content such as “Ask a Preacher” on Oxygen.com, where viewers can get advice straight from the Preachers cast, is the best way to serve the network’s faith-based viewers.

Meanwhile, Lifetime senior VP of original movies Tanya Lopez is tapping some universal themes for the production of The Red Tent, starring Minnie Driver and Homeland’s Morena Baccarin. “We have led our programming when it comes to faith-based saying, ‘What is the most common thread?’ And for us it really has been family and forgiveness.”

Lifetime has had previous success with movies dealing with the same issues, specifically Amish Grace (which aired on sister network LMN and garnered 4 million total viewers for its 2010 premiere), along with 2013’s Twist of Faith. Both proved to Lopez that there could be an audience for faith-based miniseries.

Other than making the first five minutes of Red Tent available for digital viewing, Lifetime is also sponsoring book discussions to increase chatter about the series. Lifetime will preview parts of the miniseries at the speaking engagements, which will take place in or around college towns to entice young viewers.

Millennial women are spending less time sitting in their local church pews and a lot more time giving the proverbial “like” to Facebook statuses. But that’s not stopping makers of faith-based programming from trying to reach them, and in various cases succeeding.

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