Vikings vs. The Bible: Why History Channel Won’t/Can’t Market Faith? by Craig Detweiler, PhD

Part 3 in series The Future of Faith in Film and Television.  We asked observers in and around the entertainment industry to share their perspective on where faith is (or should be) headed in film and TV. Here’s what they said:

Why did the History Channel heavily promote “The Vikings” while almost ignoring the equally epic ten-hour mini series that preceded it, “The Bible”? Could it be the church’s fault?

by Craig Detweiler, PhD • Pepperdine University

The History Channel epic new mini-series hit the advertising world with a splash.  I saw a huge, four-page fold out ad for it in Wired (right behind the cool Star Wars cover).  Billboards along Sunset Boulevard declare “The Storm is Coming” with the airdate, “3.3.13”.   The Los Angeles Times Calendar had a front-page story and photo. A reviewer at io9 raved that “it’s like Game of Thrones without the nudity.” All this buzz is being directed at a show about Vikings. Not the football-playing, Minnesotans, but rather the old Odin-loving, Norse kind of Vikings.

I am always ready to tune into ancient sword-wielding action, but I can’t understand why the History Channel would promote The Vikings while ignoring the equally epic ten-hour mini series that preceded it, The BibleWhich series is based on the bestselling book of all time?   Which program has built in recognition of beloved characters? Which show is timed right in the sweet spot of religious observation, running on Sunday nights from Lent up through Passover and Easter?   Which show serves as a lead in to the other? And yet, the marketing team at History Channel builds buzz for The Vikings?

When the smoke settled, what was the final score over the five weeks the two shows went went head to head?  The Vikings averaged 5 million viewers with extensive advertising;  The Bible averaged 11.4 million viewers with significantly less advertising. Together, they pushed the History Channel to the #1 network in all of television for March, according to TV by the Numbers. History Channel execs are jubilant about their ratings coup after the fact, but the real question is, why weren’t they willing to stick there necks out in advance?  

Industry-strength Leadership

The Bible was produced by one of the most successful producers in the history of television, Mark Burnett. Nobody has a better track record of anticipating public taste than the man behind SurvivorThe ApprenticeShark Tank, and The Voice. He is a remarkable salesman and showman, figuring out what we want and when we want it. The Bible is also produced by one of our most beloved television stars, Roma Downey. As Monica on Touched by An Angel, Downey topped the television ratings for CBS despite being shuffled around different nights and airtime. Mark and Roma embody the American dream, having emigrated from Britain and Ireland and rising to the top of the entertainment business. They are a dynamic, photogenic, and compelling couple. So why did History Channel execs all but ignore such a potentially major television event? Their own television event?

History Channel’s efforts to bury The Bible suggest several possible scenarios. Perhaps they view The Bible as soft, appealing to female viewers while The Vikings is positioned as rough and manly.   Maybe the marketing team couldn’t figure out how to make The Bible edgy and cool? It doesn’t have all the family feuds and dramatic betrayals of their previous hit, Hatfields & McCoys, right? And it’s not like it features tall, dark, and handsome men with dreadlocks playing macho characters like this:

Surely, the History Channel realizes that audiences have always loved sword and sandals epics. From The Ten Commandments to Gladiator and Braveheart, the religious community and the broad, movie going public (which are close to the same thing) have regularly embraced epic depictions of heroism and sacrifice. Blood and brawn didn’t keep ticket-goers away from The Passion of the Christ. Why would executives ignore such an obviously strong and compelling lead in to an expensive new series that follows it? Aren’t they interested in attracting the broadest audience possible for both shows?

Our Own Worst Enemy?

Less charitable critics might surmise that the History Channel is biased against religious audiences. They chose to promote the pagans rather than the Christians. A finger-pointing boycott could result—“Watch The Bible, ignore The Vikings.” It might even boost the ratings for both. And yet, I learned in Sunday School that when we point one finger out, another three point back. Why has History Channel acted against its own best interests?

The depth of distaste for religion, particularly the conservative and Christian kind, remains almost boundless in the entertainment industry. Every time a pastor calls for a boycott of Disney because of  ‘gay day’ or pleads with a congregation to send a message via Chick-fil-A, another chasm is created between the Church and Hollywood. And when pressure builds on Louie Giglio or Tim Tebow to step down from a microphone, some Christians claim religious persecution. It is all so tired and tiresome; the ongoing power games that accompany the culture war in which everyone loses. Why can’t this be an occasion when everyone pursues the same simple goal–attracting the widest, most diverse, and engaged audience possible to the History Channel?

Mark Burnett and Roma Downey, Producers of ‘The Bible’ mini-series on The History Channel

Instead, two generous and powerful Hollywood insiders make a ten-hour celebration of the grandest stories ever told that their network runs from because they don’t want to be identified with all the baggage that now accompanies the Bible.  I understand the network’s apprehension. It can be embarrassing to be associated with Christians, especially in the media business.  I live with that tension everyday. And for advertisers, it seems risky and even dangerous to be associated with any religion.

So while we should celebrate the triumph of The Bible‘s ratings and Burnett and Downey’s leadership, it is also an indicator of a deeper problem facing the future of  faith in film and television.  History Channel execs and other Hollywood creative leaders need to see that the religious audience is much bigger, less scarier, and more mature than they ever imagined. Until then, we might get huge ratings from religious audiences (with or without advertising), but we need to remember that our greater challenge is earning the trust of non-religious programmers and audiences.

Next post in series: What is a Christian movie? by Screenwriter Mike Rinaldi

See Also 

The Future of Faith in Film? Youth and Evangelicals Outstrip All Other Movie-going Audiences, by David Kinnaman

Current Films by Act One Graduates Reveal Strange Dichotomy in Box Office Mojo’s ‘Christian Movie’ Category

The Blind Side Leading the Blind: Better Faith-Based Filmmaking through Better Stories

Oh Crap! The Theater’s Full! by Actress McKenna Elise

Why Most “Christian” Movies Suck, by Screenwriter Brennan Mark Smith

Christians in Hollywood: A Mission Impossible Writer Offers a Treatment, by TV Writer Ron Austin


4 Replies to “Vikings vs. The Bible: Why History Channel Won’t/Can’t Market Faith? by Craig Detweiler, PhD”

  1. I think part of History Ch. issue is that its a perceived gamble on faith based content. Many of the biblical mainstream stories have been rehashed over and over since the 20’s. There have been multiple tv’s etc. As a company I would even be nervous to release say for instance to make another Jesus movie “if” I was looking to make sure I was making a profit. There are tons of stories in the Bible that do not get any recognition and even in that there are very many ideas that can be spawned just from reading the Bible. Also to many people have the idea that faith films are the mushie, non violent kirk cameron “Fireproof” type movies. I really believe with what God has given me is a completely different direction and taking ideas that still deal with faith, God, Jesus etc but will not be your normal christian films

  2. I hope the author of this article is watching Vikings carefully. They are doing a nice job of juxtaposing Christian faith and the beliefs of the Viking world. While they might not market faith (which really isn’t their job..that’s up to the believers) whoever is writing the script has an impressive vision of how to present both views of the respective beliefs.

  3. While I think this is an interesting spring board for broader ideas – the basic premise is limited to a Los Angeles area demographic.

    In Virgina The Bible was as heavily promoted as anything is out here with ads in movie theaters and across multiple networks and much less attention was paid to Vikings.

    Is it possible THC was just smart in how they spent their advertising dollars – focusing on the product they thought would get the most play in different regions?

  4. Is it possible that THC intentionally chose different marketing approaches? Everyone knew that The Bible was going to be on TV because it was promoted heavily in churches, on social media, etc. (and I do recall seeing ads in NYC, so maybe different approaches based on region). And it obviously got the ratings, so somehow people knew about it. Maybe they decided that the best marketing approach for The Bible was word of mouth and social media among people who were likely to watch it. On the other hand, there wasn’t an obvious market for the Vikings, which meant ad dollars had to be spent to promote it in a traditional ad campaign. The author seems to be assuming motive (hostility to Christianity, “don’t want to be identified with all the baggage that now accompanies the Bible”) with no actual proof of motive. Why would THC spend significant money on a mini-series they intended to “bury”? Doesn’t make sense and smacks of paranoia. And while the author urges resisting “culture wars” and “earning the trust of non-religious programmers and audiences”, he does neither.

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