Forced to Watch: God Does Sitcoms

Vancouver's new religious channel looks like regular prime time, until the commentators examine the shows from a Christian point of view

By Steve Burgess 9 Feb 2004 | TheTyee.ca

Steve Burgess is a freelance writer and the author of Who Killed Mom?, published in 2011 by Greystone Books.

Born in Norwalk Ohio, home of the famous virus, Steve was raised in Regina, SK, and Brandon, MB. He writes a regular column for The Tyee, often reviewing films but also, sometimes, detailing his hilarious world travels for Tyee readers. Steve is a former CBC Radio host and has won two National Magazine Awards. He has also won three Western Magazine Awards.

Reporting Beat: Travel, pop culture, politics, cobbling, knife sharpening, furnace repair.

Twitter: @steveburgess1

Website: Steve Burgess

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There was a time when great things could be expected from hermits. Solitude meant contemplation; contemplation meant wisdom, writing, great works of philosophy and literature.

That was before television. Now all of that wisdom and contemplation tends to get channeled into Jeopardy.

One thing remained constant in the TV era, though-a certain number of loners could be counted on to become religious fanatics. Here, at least, television has historically done its fair share. From Billy Graham to Oral Roberts to Peter Popoff, TV evangelism helped stoke the fires of zealotry.

Now, thanks to NOW, even that tradition might be going the way of St. Francis' simple hut. Vancouver's NOW TV is introducing Lower Mainland channel browsers to a subversive new brand of televangelism, one that hides its message behind a secular face. Frequently, it's the face of Ray Romano. Slick move. After all, not everybody loves Jesus, but Everybody Loves Raymond.

Searching for Tammy Faye

Last year NOW TV showed up on channel 10, much to the annoyance of agnostics and atheists with 20-year-old television sets. (Those of us with older TVs are occasionally slaves to the lower dial. If I'm taping a show with my VCR, the only channels I can watch are 2-13. I resented the bumping of ABC all the way up to 21.)

But it quickly became clear that NOW is not your Father's religious channel. For one thing, ABC's newsmagazine 20/20 still airs on channel 10. So is CBS' 60 Minutes and NBC's Dateline. And the rest of the prime time schedule is heavy on sitcoms- Everybody Loves Raymond, Family Affair (!), Growing Pains. What's going on?

Television stations are licensed by the CRTC under certain conditions. Newly licensed stations agree to do certain things. Obviously with a religious channel, those promises would run something along the lines of "We'll run religious programs."

So ... Everybody Loves Raymond? Shouldn't CRTC SWAT teams storm the offices of NOW TV and force them to play a few Tammy Faye Baker re-runs?

Nope. NOW TV has it covered, thanks to a segment called Raymond Retrospective. After we've all laughed ourselves silly at the side-splitting antics of Ray and his wacky clan, two co-hosts appear onscreen from the NOW studios to discuss the episode and how it relates to Biblical scripture. Voila-Everybody Loves Raymond has become religious programming.

Same deal with the newsmagazine shows. NOW TV spices them up with little studio segments, featuring discussions of the issues from a Christian viewpoint. Quite a long way from The Ernest Angley Hour. It seems at least possible that someday we will turn to channel 10 for reruns of 24 starring Kiefer Sutherland. Each episode could be preceded by a suitable Gospel passage, such as John 6:25- "Verily, verily I say unto you, the hour is coming..."

Luring regular folks into the tent with wholesome sitcom fare means that NOW TV is less likely to end up preaching to the converted when the sermon eventually arrives. Nonetheless, despite that subtle approach the message viewers eventually get from NOW can be just as hardcore as anything Jerry Fallwell delivers.

The cult of the family

One recent Raymond Retrospective followed an episode where Ray and his brother joined a cult. Easy pickings for the NOW crew, you'd think. But in fact, NOW co-hosts Terry Mahoney and Marilyn Rathbun quickly dispensed with the cult issue-"the false road to peace and happiness" Rathbun called it-before moving on to a more startling conclusion. Mahoney and Rathbun found fault with all the characters on the show for seeking primary fulfilment through family relationships. Bad move, said Terry and Marilyn. "Human beings are always going to fail," Rathbun told viewers. "People are not always perfect and relationships are imperfect.... True joy comes from God the Father."

Seen in that light, NOW TV's daily airings of Leave It to Beaver appear rather scandalous. When it comes to excess family activity, Ward and June are a pretty misguided pair. But it's important to see the bad examples, too, so that we might learn from them.

A little further up the dial, Vision TV offers a more recognizable mix of religious programming, including the likes of Peter Popoff. Popoff is the televangelist as caricature-even in a photograph, his profession would be as readily identifiable as Dracula's. NOW TV is probably wise to stay away from such central-casting types. In the end, though, channels such as NOW are more akin to the Home Shopping Network than they are to other cable outlets. Ultimately, it's all about the sales pitch.

Forced to Watch is an occasional column at The Tyee about what's good and not on television, and widely published writer Steve Burgess is hogging the control.  [Tyee]

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