HERE'S A can't-miss TV concept: Outcast renegades battle brutal rulers trying to snuff out their freedom uprising. After the despots lethally torture the rebels' magnetic leader, his ragtag followers find mystical new inspiration to advance their pursuit of human rights, compassion and forgiveness.
Could be a sci-fi/fantasy cult favorite. Maybe a graphic historical actioner. Or a philosophical character study.
It's the Bible.
And it's trending big in TV today, with programmers racing to adapt/explore a book hundreds of years old, still ardently read, widely inspirational, much discussed, often controversial. As feature films go mad for remakes, TV taps a broader franchise - one with which nearly all Americans are familiar and which many revere.
On Palm Sunday, no fewer than six cable channels spotlighted Bible programs, including NatGeo's blockbuster adaptation of Bill O'Reilly's "Killing Jesus," which attracted 3.7 million viewers - the channel's biggest audience ever.
On Easter Sunday, NBC launches its 12-week series of post-Christ stories, "A.D.: The Bible Continues." CNN's fact-based "Finding Jesus" series concludes that same night, with a Mary Magdalene episode.
Throughout Holy Week, the Spanish-language network Telemundo has broken audience records airing "La Biblia," its translation of History's hit miniseries "The Bible."
That's the "A.D." precursor that kick-started the trend by attracting more than 100 million viewers total in 2013. The "Bible" finale airing that Easter Sunday drew nearly 12 million alone, besting TV's top-rated series, AMC's "The Walking Dead," in head-to-head competition.
Wait, God vs. zombies? And God wins!
God's guy in L.A.
"When something works, everybody wants to do it," says television industry watcher Marc Berman of TVMediaInsights.com. "Mark Burnett had a huge success, and now it's suddenly the hot ticket."
"Survivor" producer Burnett and his wife, Roma Downey, who starred in CBS' faith-based modern drama "Touched by an Angel," speak openly in Hollywood about their Christian faith - and their production company, LightWorkers Media, has made the three most elaborate Bible-era dramatizations so far: "The Bible," "A.D." and "Dovekeepers."
Berman notes that while TV programmers might expect religious subject matter to seem dry and dull, it doesn't have to be. "The way they did it - well-written, well-produced, not sitting in Bible class - they proved it can be exciting."
The couple further fueled the hype at TV critics' January press tour by equating "A.D." to big-time hits from other genres. Burnett called it " 'Game of Thrones' meets the Bible."
In the beginning . . .
The faithful have always found ways to appeal to television's mainstream audience. One of TV's first superstars, in the medium's low-budget launch after World War II, was New York Bishop Fulton Sheen. A charismatic speaker who gave proto-Oprah Winfrey spiritual lectures in the prime-time series "Life Is Worth Living" (1951-57), Sheen drew up to 30 million viewers weekly.
The tumult of the 1960s soon made explicit religion less of a TV attraction, while preachers like Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell soon built personal pulpits in syndication and cable. Mainstream broadcasters found success portraying nondenominational faith through fictional lenses in contemporary "crisis" dramas - hence the guardians-from-above in Michael Landon's "Highway to Heaven" (NBC, 1984-89) and Downey's "Touched by an Angel" (CBS, 1994-2003).
Today's productions are more overtly religious, yet often tap successful TV genres or broader appeal.
Even on news-driven CNN, "Finding Jesus" savvily employs "history mystery" investigation elements, scenic re-creations and dramatic music. Academic experts speak in juicy sound bites ("the ominous stench of death breathing down").
That approach has quadrupled CNN's Sunday-night ratings.
The hook of Job
Contemporary settings are big in TV movies like TV One's Easter weekend premiere "To Hell and Back," starring "Ghostbuster" Ernie Hudson.
The tale of a generous man beset by a litany of woes through which he loses everything, yet maintains his faith, "It's very, very directly based on the book of Job, and we tell people it is," says TV One president Brad Siegel. Yet, this modern version involves lawsuits and car wrecks, so "if you didn't know the book of Job, it wouldn't matter," says Siegel.
The story line neatly covers black-aimed TV One's three pillars of faith, family and community, with a fourth perhaps being Hudson's star power.
Such multipronged appeal may explain why the Bible is now being mined so feverishly. In today's niche-dominated multichannel universe, they still signify a broad-based gathering place for all kinds of viewers.