The Media Hears the Sermon


By Bill Symonds The Christian Right would seem to have a lot to celebrate as Christmas approaches. In recent days, it has scored a number of significant victories over its perceived opponents in Corporate America. Many of the nation's biggest cable operators have just announced plans to offer a "family tier" of networks in response to the Christian Right's long-running campaign against "indecent" TV programming.

Disney (DIS), which has come under fire from some Christian groups, is now cultivating Christians to promote its big new hit, The Chronicles of Narnia. On Dec. 9, the American Family Assn. (AFA) called off its boycott of Target (TGT) after the retailer said it would include Christmas in its advertising and in-store promotions.

CHRISTIAN NATION. Wal-Mart (WMT) and Land's End have been forced to apologize for slighting Christmas. And the AFA has boasted that its complaints led to Ford (F) yanking ads for Jaguar and Land Rover from gay publications.

These actions suggest that Christian conservatives are being taken more seriously by corporations. After years of complaining about Hollywood and companies that cater to the secular culture, conservative Catholics and Evangelical Christians are gaining traction. But signs of progress may be misleading. While the Christian Right has more political power now than it has enjoyed in decades, American society has never been more secular.

Many of these developments stem more from a long-overdue recognition of the importance of the Christian consumer market rather than a decision to bow to the Christian thought police. While it may come as news to some urban sophisticates, this is a largely Christian nation.

NARNIA'S GOLD. White Evangelicals alone -- many of whom support the Christian Right and who voted overwhelmingly for President Bush in 2004 -- make up 26% of the population, according to John Green, a political scientist at the University of Akron. When you add in Catholics, mainline Protestants, black Evangelicals, and other Christians, Green figures that nearly 80% of Americans are affiliated with a Christian church.

Yet Hollywood has long all but ignored the Christian audience. It took a film produced outside of the big studios -- Mel Gibson's blockbuster The Passion of the Christ -- to demonstrate just how lucrative that audience could be. Now Disney is scoring big with Narnia, which last weekend enjoyed the third-biggest opening of 2005.

Unlike Passion, Narnia is not a blatantly religious film. Instead, it's an artful rendition of a subtle Christian allegory, based on a series of best-selling books by the much-loved Christian author C.S. Lewis.

MARKETING TACTICS. But Disney is employing some of the same tactics used to promote Passion to cultivate interest in Narnia, including screening it for some pastors and church groups.

Disney is also getting a huge assist from the booming Christian publishing industry, which has been heavily promoting the books in Christian bookstores, as well as Narnia-related gifts and toys.

"We're seeing a huge increase in sales of the Chronicles and related books," says Doug Lockhart, president of Zondervan, a huge Christian publisher owned by Rupert Murdoch's News Corp. (NWS).

FAMILY ENVIRONMENT. The Christian Right's most notable recent victory has come in its long-running battle against "smut" on TV. Christian activists have flooded the Federal Communications Commission and Congress with complaints.

"There are a great many Christian homes that don't subscribe to cable," says Dr. Frank Wright, president of the National Religious Broadcasters. Christian conservatives have been pushing for replacing the existing tiers of cable networks offered by cable companies with an a la carte system.

"We need an environment where every family can decide what is appropriate in their homes," says Lanier Swann, director of government relations for the Concerned Women for America, a Christian group (see BW Online, 11/30/05, "The FCC's Cable Crusade Continues").

"A NEW LOW." Many of the major cable operators -- including Comcast (CMCSA) and Time Warner (TWX) -- say they will offer a "family" tier of networks, designed to appeal to consumers upset about TV indecency. Their hope is that this compromise will fend off the a la carte system, which they oppose as unwieldy and expensive.

The Christian Right is hardly mollified. "If you allow the cable industry to define family-friendly, you'll end up with packages that contain programming like ABC Family Channel, some of which promotes premarital sex and infidelity," fumes Swann.

While the battle over cable choice rages, the irony is that Christian conservatives are losing the broader war over what's shown on the tube. "We've reached a new low in TV content," bemoans Wright. "There have never been so many instances of violence and sexual content." (See BW, 11/21/05, "An All-Out Assault On Sexual Content".)

STATUE LIMITATIONS. Nor are sacrilegious attacks out of bonds. The conservative Catholic League for Religious & Civil Rights is blasting a new episode of South Park, in which the Pope is sprayed with blood from a statue of the Virgin Mary. "A chick bleeding out of her...is no miracle," the Pope replies in the cartoon, which aired on Viacom's (VIA) Comedy Central. Joseph Califano Jr., who sits on Viacom's board and is a practicing Catholic, condemned the showing of the episode.

Christian conservatives have had similarly mixed results with their efforts to control advertisers. Though a few corporate sponsors have stayed away from controversial shows such as ABC's smash hit Desperate Housewives, there's been no shortage of other willing sponsors.

And while the AFA has been claiming it forced Ford's Jag and Land Rover brands to pull ads from gay publications, those claims likely are overblown. Indeed, Ford's Volvo continues to advertise in The Advocate, a gay magazine (see BW Online, 12/9/05, "Volvo's Gay Friendly Position Proves Ford Didn't Cave To The AFA").

CHRISTMAS SPIRIT. The Catholic League has had better luck with its campaign to fend off corporate efforts to malign Christmas. On Nov. 11, the League called off its boycott of Wal-Mart after the world's largest retailer apologized for a statement it gave a customer who had complained that it was replacing "Merry Christmas" with "Happy Holidays."

The statement argued that Christmas was "an ancient tradition" with roots in pagan cultures. And this month, the Catholic League got Land's End to repudiate its earlier explanation of why it no longer mails out catalogs wishing customers a "Merry Christmas." The reason: It didn't have any way to determine which customers celebrated Christmas.

But are these companies bowing to the Christian right -- or to economic realities? Britt Beemer, chairman of America's Research Group, a market research firm based in Charleston, S.C., thinks it's the latter. "Some of these retailers are awakening to a sleeping giant," he argues.

SPEAKING OUT. Indeed, his surveys found that nearly one in five consumers say they wouldn't buy presents in a store where they didn't hear "Merry Christmas." And nearly half said they had been following news coverage of the debate over using the term "Merry Christmas." "The silent majority are no longer silent," says Beemer.

Meanwhile, Catholic League President Bill Donohue admits he's under no illusions about the power of the Religious Right. Sure, they've scored some nice wins recently. But Donohue cautions: "The battle is a long way from over, and the culture is still up for grabs." As for Corporate America, it seems likely to base its decisions more on its economic self-interest, rather than moralizing from religious leaders.

Symonds is Boston bureau manager for BusinessWeek


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