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Reality TV gets religion

Published Feb. 13, 2007

These days people recognize Rabbi Shmuley Boteach wherever he goes. Spotted by theme park workers at Walt Disney World on the Fourth of July, the Orthodox rabbi and his eight children skipped past the masses to the front of the line. When the rabbi sought a place to park his RV in a North Dakota campground a few days later, the gatekeeper's "No room at the inn" quickly transformed into an offer of the park's choicest lot once he realized who was at the wheel.

Boteach (pronounced bo-TEY-ach) has a congregation of fans that extends far beyond any synagogue. He is the star of TLC's Shalom in the Home, a reality television program that pairs the rabbi with dysfunctional families in need of counseling. With nearly 700,000 viewers per episode, the program is one of the cable network's highest-rated offerings, more popular than some of its home improvement, fashion and makeover shows.

Reality television, long the province of aspiring business moguls, contestants stranded on deserted islands, the lovelorn and would-be rock stars, has finally met religion. From A&E to MTV, reality producers are acknowledging — and capitalizing on — America's interest in spirituality.

"This is now a subject matter that our mass media is no longer afraid of talking about, and therefore we will," said Robert J. Thompson, a professor of television and popular culture at Syracuse University. "It's a subject matter that never wears out. This is one of the basic questions since we could carve little things on the walls of caves. Now we're going to be carving it on 50-inch, high-definition wide screens."

Religious television programs on secular television have made significant inroads in the past two decades, scholars said. But most of those shows have been heavily scripted sitcoms, feel-good dramas or holiday-themed epics. Despite relative success, depicting religion remains touchy terrain. Include too much fire and brimstone and television producers risk turning off secular audiences. Wander a little too far left and religious groups are likely to cry foul.

The new crop of reality television shows, which allow the public to see religion as a backdrop in participants' everyday lives, are seemingly able to draw viewers of all stripes without offending the faithful.

Boteach's hourlong show, a sort of Dr. Phil meets Nanny 911, tries to help parents regain control of their households and their

marriages using wisdom he has learned from Judaism. But don't expect him to quote the Torah or trot the families off to the nearest synagogue.

The show, Boteach said, is not about religion.

"It's a show about family," said Boteach, who is known as Rabbi Shmuley. "To the extent that religious thought can be brought to bear on healing them, then of course, I do that. But these truths are universal

. . . applicable to men, women and children of every denomination, every way of life."

Tonight , TLC will debut The Messengers, its second spiritually themed reality show. The program tracks 10 contestants, including a Muslim, a self-described "nondenominational Jesus freak" and a yogi, as they're put through various personal challenges. In one episode, the contestants spend a day toiling in the fields alongside migrant farm workers and then fashion a speech about struggle. Other episodes expose them to the realities of homelessness and living with physical disabilities. The goal, after rounds of elimination, is to find the country's next great motivational speaker.

In April, A&E's God or the Girl observed four men as they struggled with accepting the priesthood or married life. The star of FX's 30 Days embraces a new moral challenge every month. A recent episode dropped him into a Muslim home and required him to adapt to Islamic culture.

Even MTV, which helped pioneer reality TV, has jumped into the mix. Run's House features the family of Joseph Simmons, a former Run DMC rapper-turned-preacher. Simmons, who now uses the moniker "Rev. Run," sports a minister's collar when he leaves the house, talks to his brother, hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons, about the importance of prayer, and receives on-air counseling from his bishop.

These programs appeal to viewers because they show people living their faith, scholars say. Short on evangelism and long on voyeurism, the shows are largely religious soft sells, allowing viewers to see faiths and experiences often far different from their own. They also allow the public to see spirituality as a natural integration into lifestyles.

Julie Ingersoll, an associate professor of religious studies at the University of North Florida in Jacksonville, wonders why television has remained decidedly secular for so long, choosing not to show families saying grace before meals or people watching late-night televangelists.

"People do that stuff, and yet you don't ever see it depicted on television," Ingersoll said. "Think about All in the Family. Did they go to church? If they were a real family in Queens, N.Y., they would have, and they would have probably been Catholic."

Even though religion and reality television seem to capture viewers' interest, television executives are quick to point out that they are not embracing spirituality.

"We are really pleased that we've got a pipeline of two or three strong shows in this space," said David Abraham, executive vice president and general manager of TLC. "By the same token, we don't want to give the signal that we've become a spiritual network. That was never our objective."

Abraham says the network aims its programming at viewers in their late 20s to late 40s who are dealing with major life issues such as getting married, buying a home and starting families.

So far, the reaction from religious communities has been mostly positive. That's a good thing, because television analysts say the marriage of religion and reality television likely will last for quite some time.

"I wouldn't be surprised if we see a contest sending people for a week to the Vatican," said the Rev. Lesley A. Northup, associate professor of religion and interim dean of the Honors College at Florida International University. "We have a lot of religious people for whom religion is very important in this culture who feel that it's not integrated enough."

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Since Shalom in the Home aired in April, Boteach has helped nearly a dozen families get their houses in order. He says he gets more than 150 e-mails a day from admirers and has about 200 lecture invitations from synagogues and Jewish community centers across the country. In March, he spoke at Temple Ahavat Shalom in Palm Harbor.

He has even done Oprah, offering up his religious-based parenting and marital advice for an hour in June. He says reality television success comes with great responsibility.

"That burden of having to be a moral beacon weighs heavily on my shoulders insofar as my behavior reflects that not only of a personality, but of a tradition," Boteach said. "If the public likes who I am, so be it. I'm just being me, Shmuley."

Shalom in the Home's second season starts in January. More than 100 families, most of whom are not Jewish, already have sent in requests for the rabbi's help.

Sherri Day can be reached at (813) 226-3405 or sday@sptimes.com.