Godless television

CBS drops Christian Web site ad from "Jesus" miniseries.

By Sean Elder

Published May 11, 2000 4:00PM (EDT)

God knows you don't see much Biblical programming on prime time TV.

Every holiday somebody trots out "The Ten Commandments" or "The Robe," but the major networks are usually unholy zones.

So it makes sense that folks at the Christian Web site iBelieve.com saw the CBS miniseries "Jesus" as a blessedly rare opportunity to advertise.

IBelieve, launched in January, bills itself as "a site for Christians of all denominations to learn how to apply their faith to all areas of their lives." "Jesus," whose two parts will air May 14 and 17, tells the story of the man from Nazareth, from birth to crucifixion. You might forgive iBelieve's John Nardini for considering the opportunity a marriage made in heaven.

"30 million people with an interest in Jesus watching for four hours," says Nardini, who handles marketing at the Grand Rapids, Mich. site. "It's a perfect audience for us."

Or would have been. Last week, after several months of negotiations, CBS informed iBelieve that it would not air its ads during "Jesus." Citing a disclaimer that neither iBelieve nor its ad agency Hanon & McKendry had ever heard before, the network proclaimed, "CBS will not air a commercial if the product or content relates too closely to the content of the prime-time entertainment program. If this is the case, the program becomes a program-length commercial. It then proselytizes the show or commercializes the programming."

Which, in this case, translates to: No Christian advertisements during a program about Christ. (What the hell were those guys at iBelieve thinking?)

Dana McClintock, a spokesman for CBS, claims the network's policy is consistent and nondenominational, as it were.

"We don't want to commercialize entertainment value," he says, adding that the network's first responsibility is to "our diverse audience. There are people who will watch the special because it is entertainment programming and not, perhaps, for religious reasons."

The exceptions to the policy as stated by CBS -- sports advertising during sporting events, advertisements for financial institutions and services during money shows -- are beside the point, according to McClintock. iBelieve and its publicists are only trying to muddy the waters.

"They've been trying to come up with these contradictions that are clearly irrelevant," he says. "The consumer has an understanding of the difference between sports-entertainment programming and prime-time programming."

Even if you forgive the tacit assumption here (everyone knows everything's for sale in sports), there are several problems with CBS's argument: First, iBelieve is not, in the strictest sense, selling anything. Visitors to the site are encouraged to register at no charge. Though its revenue model is based on selling Christian tchotchkes online (iBelieve is financed by the same company that owns Family Christian Stores and the site moves quite a few Bibles, books and CDs), there's plenty to do without reaching for your wallet. (Read scripture. Talk to other Christians. Read some more scripture. Etc.)

Secondly, a visit to CBS's own "Jesus" site reveals that the program is, not surprisingly, based on the gospels of the New Testament. Yes, a "Jesus Time Line" takes pains to differentiate historic fact from Biblical verse, but most of the events found there are Bible-based. Here are all the big miracles (raising the dead, turning water into wine), along with the Sermon on the Mount and other famous utterances; there doesn't seem to be anything drawn from outside sources (such as the disputed Gnostic gospels).

In other words, the show is based on Christ as presented in the Bible. So why would an ad for a Christian Web site be such a stretch?

"They're telling us the consumers would confuse the commercials with the content," says iBelieve's Nardini. "We think they'd be pretty interested."

According to Nardini, iBelieve started talking to CBS about buying ads for "Jesus" back in February. In March, they sent the network a videotape of commercials that had previously aired on networks like PAX TV and Fox Family Channel during shows such as "The 700 Club" -- "places Christians would normally frequent," as Nardini puts it.

Those spots, according to Nardini, "show different scenes from everyday life" -- a mother with her child on a bike, a father holding a baby. "Then a little box comes up that says, 'Insert God here.'"

CBS did not profess to object to these "standard brand ads" (as Nardini calls them); no one called to say "Delete God here." Working with Hanon & McKendry, iBelieve continued to strategize on what kind of message they wanted to send to the larger audience they hoped to reach during "Jesus."

"We didn't want to do a Super Bowl type ad," says Nardini. "We wanted viewers to have an incentive" to visit iBelieve. They decided to offer a free CD of Christian music to anyone who registered at iBelieve (registration is free), and even offered to donate money to a Christian charity that combats racism. The music was the hook, though. "These were artists Christians would just know, just like anybody would know the Backstreet Boys."

This may have been when the scales fell from the eyes of the brethren over at Black Rock. Though CBS spokesperson McClintock would not address the timing of their decision, Nardini says the network expressed concern over the lyrics of the Christian songs.

"We said at that point, listen, the lyrics aren't fundamental to the spot," says Nardini. "We just want to say 'Free CD at iBelieve.com.' It doesn't have to have the music on it, we'll just have a bed of music to make it look like it's a good commercial, no lyrics." The ad, as he describes it, would have looked like one of those greatest-hits things you see all the time on TV -- not too compelling, but not altogether offensive, either. It was at this juncture that CBS issued its statement, forbidding the iBelieve ad -- though Nardini hopes they may yet roll away the stone.

"What we're doing now is negotiating to get a spot as close as we can to the Jesus miniseries," he says. (CBS confirmed that they had accepted an iBelieve ad but would not say when it was running -- or who else might be hawking their wares during "Jesus.")

One strange twist in this tale is that the sales team from CBS.com had approached iBelieve about advertising on the "Jesus" site, even as the TV network was rejecting their ads. CBS's McClintock does see a contradiction.

"There are distinct differences between broadcast television and the Internet and I think that most viewers, as well as the advertising community, really understand that," he says.

Don't expect CBS to change its mind, even if the whole fracas is making them look a bit like Pontius Pilate (played in the miniseries by Gary Oldman, who used to get the Judas roles). First of all, they have their own CD -- not free -- to push a soundtrack from the series, and I bet you'll see a few ads for that during the series. (They don't want to confuse people.) Secondly, the attendant publicity may not hurt them and should drive eyeballs to both the iBelieve site and the "Jesus" show itself. (A win-win situation, as they said in ancient Rome.) But how to accept CBS's claim that they didn't know what sort of site they were dealing with? What, did they think it was short for "I believe in Satan"?

And a note to the folks at CBS.com: You might want to change some of the language on the "Jesus" site. "Here at CBS.com, we've built a temple of a Web site to honor this epic," runs the intro. The temple was the place Jesus threw the moneychangers out of.

Just FYI.

Sean Elder

Sean Elder is a frequent contributor to Salon.

MORE FROM Sean Elder

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Advertising Cbs