In CNN’s ‘Believer,’ Reza Aslan to aim for a window on world religions

Posted: March 22, 2015 at 5:44 am

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CNN is looking to a higher power in its quest to get new viewers.

The cable news network's original series lineup for 2016 includes "Believer," featuring religious studies scholar Reza Aslan, who will delve into different religious practices around the world. Think of it as "Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown" with faith instead of food as a window to explore cultures.

The six-episode series, based on an idea that Aslan has been pitching for a few years, will be another element in CNN's strategy to get people to tune in when there isn't breaking news.

"It's an opportunity to show religious traditions, practices, rites and rituals that may at first seem weird and foreign and exotic and unfamiliar because you're unfamiliar with the metaphors underlying those ideas," Aslan said in a telephone interview from his Hollywood office. "At the end of an hour episode, they will all of a sudden become much more familiar and recognizable."

Religious programming has found an audience on television going back to when Bishop Fulton Sheen got big ratings just by dissecting inspirational topics on his chalkboard for the DuMont and ABC networks in the 1950s.

In recent weeks, CNN has been topping its cable news competition with "Finding Jesus: Faith, Fact, Forgery," in which scientific and archaeological methods are used to examine physical evidence of Christ's existence. The program has averaged 1.2 million viewers a week since its premiere.

Aslan, who wrote the controversial bestseller "Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth," will cast a wider net with his program, undoubtedly influenced by his own personal experience. A creative writing professor at UC Riverside who holds a PhD in sociology with a focus on religions, Aslan became a born-again Christian after coming to the U.S. from Iran. He later converted to Islam.

On "Believer," Aslan could take viewers to Pakistan for the annual Shia mourning ceremony and flagellation exercises. Or he could go to Israel to observe members of Na Nach, an ultra-Orthodox Jewish movement that combines rave culture and all that that involves (yes, alcohol and drugs) with spirituality to create, as he describes it, "something brand-new."

The show is part of a broader effort by CNN President Jeff Zucker to expand the network beyond the 24/7 news cycle and into documentaries and other kinds of shows. Thanks to its original series' performances, CNN's prime-time audience was down 1% in 2014 compared with the previous year when it experienced double-digit declines. The channel still remains a distant second behind Fox News Channel.

Producing shows like "Believer" costs more than a live show with talking heads in the studio. But Zucker said the improved ratings from such series as "Parts Unknown," "The Hunt With John Walsh" and "The Sixties" have made the approach profitable.

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In CNN's 'Believer,' Reza Aslan to aim for a window on world religions

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March 22nd, 2015 at 5:44 am