Public TV Gets Religion, Respectfully

Television news is embarrassed by religion. It can't touch it, can't see it, and — foremost — can't take pictures of it, so the topic is assiduously ignored on most newscasts most nights. There is a sense (or perhaps bias) among news executives that spiritual matters are deeply personal or somehow exist in a realm far removed from the daily pull and tug of human life, which after all is the grist of nightly news show.

And so, for the most part, it is not covered (unless, like the Pope's recent visit to the Holy Land, it can't not be covered). Which is why public TV's “Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly” is one of the great ideas in TV news of recent years. (In New York, the show airs from 6 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. on Sundays; otherwise, check local listings.) The program premiered three years ago, but has barely made a ripple in the huge muddy pond of television news. In structure, the program is resolutely traditional: There is an anchor (Bob Abernethy), and straight, no-nonsense news reports which methodically and carefully parse various stories that have virtually no reliance on usual crutch of TV news — namely, pictures.

Indeed, the show is filled with talking heads, but not the usual ones who shout and scream at one another over The Issue of the Day. They are priests and rabbis, doctors and people (“ethicists?”) who spend their days and nights wondering about the intricacies of difficult issues — religious freedom in China, the rights of babies born with severe disabilities, the growing field of bioethics. This is a show that takes its title seriously.

Ironically, and sadly, “Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly” had its own ethical scrap recently. The show's founding producer, Gerry Solomon, was forced out by executives at New York's WNET/13. They wanted someone who was closely allied with the head office (the show is produced in Washington). But, fortunately, Solomon laid a strong base. He brought in some pros from NBC News (where he formerly was a top producer) — people like Mary Alice Williams and Betty Rollin. He and Abernethy also established a program that steadfastly refuses to violate journalistic ethics: It is fair and balanced to a fault.

The show exudes compassion rather than a sense of religious direction or suasion, but the Catholic faith seems to come in for especially fair treatment here. Last October, for example, the show reported a superb piece on Roman Catholic persecution in China, where the Church is divided into a state-sanctioned official church and an underground church loyal to the Pope. Television has covered religious persecution in China, but the detail in this report was particularly deep and rich.

The show also tackled — and dismissed — the sensationalized Kansas City Star report on AIDS among American Catholic priests (which, based on a sample of 3,000, reported that the death rate among priests is four times that of the general population). The program contacted Warren Mitofsky, the standards chairman of the American Association for Public Opinion Research, the dean of network TV news political polling, who called the Star study “seriously flawed.”

A deep and abiding respect for Pope John Paul II comes through on “Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly,” along with the sense that he is the closest thing the world has to a true moral leader. Of the recent trip to the Middle East, Cardinal William Keeler, archbishop of Baltimore, observed on the show that “he is showing himself to be a splendid pilgrim, to take on the challenge of visiting places that I know are going to bring a great deal of joy into his heart, and it's going to be very meaningful for us who follow it.”

Perhaps the same could be said for a show that most of America still does not know exists. Register readers looking to get a sense of the context of their faith in the secular world would do well to find out when this show airs in local areas and put it on their schedule each week.

Here are some viewing highlights to look for in May:

Why so much television on Christ, and why now? In mid-April, ABC aired “The Miracle Maker,” a nicely done claymation movie that helped heal the breach between ABC and the Southern Baptist Convention, which launched a boycott against ABC's owner, Disney, three years ago. One wonders: Was this ABC's motive? (For the record, ABC says it wanted an Easter movie to complement “The Ten Commandments,” which has aired around Easter for many years.)

But why CBS’ interest? The answer: sheer, brute economics. The network figures the Gospel story — supplemented here with an amazing array of computer-generated graphics — will attract a wide audience, and that figuring may well be right. The good news is, based on a partial viewing, CBS’ “Jesus” is intelligent and well-produced and, while Jeremy Sisto doesn't break with the usual screen stereotype of the title character, he does bring warmth and humanity to his subject. It's a solid performance. (Jaqueline Bisset plays Mary.)

But there are some interesting innovations here as well. This “Jesus” attempts to link the Gospel to modern times in subtle and not-so-subtle ways. For example, Jeroen Krabbe's performance as Satan should get an interesting reaction: He is Armani-clad, wing-tipped, blow-dried and looks exactly like a stock version of a Hollywood agent.

The unusual portrayal may say more about what the producers, Lorenzo Minoli and Judd Parkin, think about show business than about evil (which they may well be equating here). Will viewers go for it? My prediction: absolutely.

What's missing from the story of Pinocchio? The last time we checked, music. What Drew Carey (executive producer; and Geppetto) has done is odd, but oddly effective as well. A musical is one of the rarest creatures in prime-time television and, while this lively production will not spark a musical renaissance on TV, it should-n't hurt either. (Music and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz.) Also starring Julia Louis-Dreyfus in her first starring role since “Seinfeld” as the Blue Fairy.

Something television has not been remiss in presenting of late has been the big, expensive, sprawling, special-effects extravaganza, by those masters of the genre, Robert Halmi Sr. and Robert Halmi Jr. Both of these minis-eries are eyefuls: gorgeously produced with first-rate casts (Frank Langella, Sir Derek Jacobi, in “Jason” Alan Bates in “Nights”). This is what television does especially well when it has a mind to.

The only problem is that the Halmi style has fallen on hard times recently. Audiences flat-out rejected February's “Tenth Kingdom.” But these minis — based on familiar stories — should catch a big wave.

Verne Gay also writes about television for Newsday.