Most of the actors are from Britain, including Sean Teale ("Skins"), Simon Kunz ("Four Weddings and a Funeral") and Peter Guinness. The music is from Oscar winner Hans Zimmer, and the score plays a pivotal role in the miniseries.
"We tried to make it emotionally connective," Downey said. "We want viewers to walk through the pages of the Bible in the footsteps of these characters."
Burnett and Downey's project may be just the tip of the iceberg for religious-themed entertainment. There are a number of films in the works, including two Moses movies, one from Steven Spielberg, a Pontius Pilate drama possibly starring Brad Pitt and Will Smith's version of Cain and Abel.
On the small screen, GSN will bring back for a second season its hit "American Bible Challenge" on March 21, and TLC recently aired "The Sisterhood" reality series about Atlanta pastors' wives. Lifetime, which last month debuted "Pastor Brown," an original movie based on the prodigal son story, is developing "Preachers Daughters."
Industry watchers say Hollywood is trying to tap into an underserved audience in the U.S., where nearly half the population reports attending church regularly, according to the Pew Research Center.
Such entertainment has been lacking, said Rob Kerby, the senior editor at popular spiritual site Beliefnet, and the production pedigree of "The Bible" sets the project apart from Christian TV series of the past. "The faith community is used to Bible movies being a little cheesy, low-budget, fairly low quality, kind of B-level," Kerby said. "I can see this raising the bar."
It won't be without potential pitfalls, said Diane Winston, Knight chair in media and religion at USC's Annenberg School for Communication, because audiences don't necessarily come to the subject matter with an open mind.
"After years of going to church, people have very fixed opinions, and they're looking for things to criticize," Winston said. "How do you even compress the Bible into 10 hours? The risk is whether your audience agrees with the way you've interpreted the material and with what you've chosen to include and leave out. It's a minefield."
TV often deals with themes of spirituality and redemption, Winston said, but doesn't usually bore into religion head-on. Dramas like "Nothing Sacred" and "Book of Daniel" had short network runs because of criticism from churchgoers and trouble securing advertisers.
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To get out in front of critics and whip up support among religious groups, Burnett and Downey have been on a months-long whistle-stop promotion tour, screening parts of the miniseries for influential clergy, prayer breakfasts, faith conventions and Christian media. The couple also worked with Outreach, a Christian marketing firm in Colorado Springs, Colo., that's seeded the show with tens of thousands of churches and pastors around the country, providing sermon guides, classroom study materials and tune-in posters.
History is hyping the show in high-visibility spots like theater screens, Sunset Strip and Times Square billboards, on-air advertising and heavy social media. The channel also is working with retail giant Wal-Mart, which is airing clips of the miniseries on its store monitors and selling three companion books. ,The retailer will distribute the Fox Home Entertainment DVD set, priced at about $60, launching in April.
As for Burnett, he's certainly been busy. In addition to his reality series slate, he works on the MTV Movie Awards and People's Choice Awards. During the six-month filming in Morocco for "The Bible," he traveled back and forth between the set and L.A. to work on his reality TV projects; he has one fewer since "The Job" lasted only two episodes on CBS, but he said he's used to juggling.
Next the couple are cutting the New Testament section into a feature film that they plan to release in theaters and working on international TV distribution for the production. Says Burnett: "It's a grand narrative, but it tells a pretty simple story about God's never-ending love for all of us. It's hopeful. It's inspirational. Maybe it'll get people's hearts to open."