Media Moguls and Morality: Missing the Boat?

Prizes Can't Obscure Grass-roots Interest in Religion

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VENICE, Italy, SEPT. 18, 2004 (Zenit.org).- Last weekend's Venice Film Festival awards provided a classic example of media hostility to religion and moral values.



The Golden Lion for best picture went to "Vera Drake," a British film lauding abortion. The film's lead, Imelda Staunton, won the prize for best actress. A pro-euthanasia Spanish film, "Mar Adentro" (The Sea Within), won the runner-up award in the best-film category, while its lead Javier Bardem won the best-actor prize.

"Vera Drake" portrays "a seemingly ordinary housewife who performs secret abortions" in the 1950s before the procedure was legal, the London-based Times noted Monday. The film was made thanks to a grant of 1.25 million pounds ($2.2 million) from the UK Film Council. Two years ago the council financed "The Magdalene Sisters," which also won the Golden Lion award.

In an interview published Monday by the Spanish newspaper El Mundo, the director of "Vera Drake," Mike Leigh, declared it seemed ridiculous that some countries still outlaw abortion. Leigh seemed to regard abortion as a useful means to control population growth, commenting that Earth isn't getting any larger, while the number of people is.

He also said he considered including the Catholic Church's position on abortion in the film, but later dismissed the idea as being irrelevant for the picture.

Second-place winner "Mar Adentro" tells the story of Ramón Sampedro, who was paralyzed from the neck down at the age of 25. Sampedro committed suicide in 1998. Father Luis de Moya, a quadriplegic who knew Sampedro, affirmed in an interview with Zenit last week that "it seems very clear that his sad story is used in an attempt to trivialize euthanasia and in that way to prepare the terrain for its forthcoming legalization."

In fact, the British newspaper Observer noted last Sunday that the opening night of "Mar Adentro" drew most of the Spanish Cabinet, along with Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero.

According to the Observer, some members of the governing Socialist Party are urging the government to set up a parliamentary committee to investigate legalizing euthanasia. "The film invites us to reflect," agreed Justice Minister Juan Fernando López Aguilar, who denied there are any immediate plans to change the law.

Zapatero, according to the British paper, commented: "The film, paradoxically, is a hymn to life. ... The defense of the freedom to die is, itself, a hymn to life."

Family fare sells

But while media elites award prizes, the box office tells another story. An analysis of box-office receipts for 250 films released in the United States last year shows that audiences clearly prefer films that defend moral values, the Washington Times reported March 25.

A report prepared by the Christian Film & Television Commission (CFTVC) found that films that emphasizing "strong moral content" made an average $92.5 million -- six times the revenue of those with an "immoral, negative content." Ted Baehr, chairman of the California-based CFTVC, said: "Movies rated G and PG consistently earn two or three times as much money on average as movies rated R."

And it seems that family films have now found a major financial backer. Philip Anschutz, co-founder of Qwest Communications International Inc., made a $5 billion fortune in oil, railroads and telecommunications. In the last few years, he has financed about a dozen projects in Hollywood, all designed to be family-friendly, according to an April 22 report in the Wall Street Journal.

Anschutz has committed more than $300 million to film projects already, and he shows no signs of stopping, the Journal said. So far his films have met with mixed success, but he has hopes for a partnership with Disney to develop C.S. Lewis' Narnia books into a series of movies.

A recent initiative to promote wholesome programs for television is the Family Friendly Programming Forum. The group was established with money from a number of major companies that felt frustrated by the lack of G-rated programs in which to show their commercials, the Washington Times reported June 28. The forum has given seed money to help develop seven TV programs for this fall's viewing.

Coverage up

In the field of news, U.S. television coverage of religion has risen, the Associated Press reported April 5. The evening news programs of the three major networks -- ABC, CBS and NBC -- did 303 stories on religion during the 12 months that ended March 1, compared with 121 stories during a one-year period in 1993, according to a study by the Media Research Center.

Coverage also increased on the morning news shows with 331 in the past year, compared with 197 in 1993. Much of the increase was due to Mel Gibson's film "The Passion of the Christ'' and the 25th anniversary of John Paul II's pontificate. As well, interest in Islam has risen in the wake of terrorist attacks.

However, a notable fact is that none of the three major networks employs full-time religion correspondents. And one drawback of the increased coverage, noted the Media Research Center, is that the networks are often hostile to orthodox faiths and rely on mostly liberal religious scholars for comments.

Radio also has been a part of the revival in religion in the media. Of 13,898 stations in the United States, no fewer than 1,965 of them have a Christian format, the Denver Post reported July 18. This is up from 1,566 a decade ago, and only 399 three decades ago.

"The music is the container for the message," Jim Marshall of the National Christian Radio Association told the Denver Post. "Music is the language of the culture. ... We're discovering what Jesus knew in the first century. The way he communicated was in short stories. That's what these songs do."

The article also noted that Christian music is increasingly successful. In 2003, it sold 47.1 million albums -- more than soundtrack, Latin, jazz and classical recordings.

Onward, Christian marketers

Games, books and comics are other sectors with a growing Christian presence, observed Business Week in a July 27 article posted on its Web site. The article quoted "insiders" who estimate the Christian gaming industry to be worth about $100 million in annual sales. So far this is less than 1% of the video-game market, but it is growing.

Christian board- and card-game sales also seem to be climbing, according to Business Week.

Behind this success is a growing interest in religion among today's youth. "They're more involved with their church," says Cynthia Engelke, manager of research and trends at the New York marketing consulting firm Youth Intelligence.

In the words of Financial Times columnist Richard Tomkins last July 30, U.S. youngsters are increasingly switching from Coke to Christ. "Put simply, Christianity is cool," Tomkins wrote. "Or that is the way it is being marketed: as a more exciting and meaningful alternative to mainstream culture's world of dull conformity, empty materialism and brands."

So far much of this trend is limited to the United States. Even so, there remains plenty of anti-Christian content, as any concerned parent can testify. However, as the media elites continue to reward morality-bashing films, it seems they are increasingly out of touch with the younger generations.