Jeff Benedict: NBC's 'Rock Center' will devote full hour of prime-time television to Mormonism
In a week when Mitt Romney has started to show and tell more about his Mormon faith, NBC's "Rock Center with Brian Williams" is devoting a full hour to the subject of what it means to be "Mormon in America."
The special, which "Rock Center" calls "ambitious and lively," airs Thursday, Aug. 23, at 9 p.m. MDT, making NBC the first network to devote a full hour of prime-time television to Mormonism.
"It is a uniquely American faith and church," said the show's executive producer, Rome Hartman. "Next week we will have the first Mormon as the nominee of a national party. This is the time for Mormonism. But it's not just because of Mitt Romney. This is the fastest-growing religion in America right now. The hottest show on Broadway is 'The Book of Mormon.' It is a Mormon moment. And our program has no hidden agenda, no snark. It's an honest, lively look at Mormonism."
For the past two months, correspondents Harry Smith and Kate Snow have been interviewing Mormons around the country, exploring different aspects of the faith.
"We met a lot of great people who were open about their faith and generous with their time," said Smith. "Old guys like me remember listening to the Mormon Tabernacle Choir on the radio back in the day. For a lot of Americans that's about their only reference point to the church. Our reports will reach beyond that."
The church opened its doors to "Rock Center," too. Harry Smith spent considerable time in Salt Lake City visiting the Bishop's Central Storehouse, which contains more than 500,000 square feet of food and supplies. He also toured Welfare Square and watched volunteers make milk, cheese, honey and bread. "It's the best bread I've ever tasted," Smith said. "The best."
In addition to a segment on the church's welfare system, Smith also spent time in New York with JetBlue founder David Neeleman and myself. Both returned missionaries, Neeleman and I are the subject of a segment that explores what makes Mormon executives successful. I was interviewed by Smith at one of the largest hotels in New York City — the Marriott Marquis in Times Square.
"Do you think all the people who stay here know they are in a hotel owned by a Mormon?" Smith asked.
"No," I said. "But maybe when they open the nightstand drawer by the bed and see the Book of Mormon they start to figure it out."
Neeleman spent two hours with Smith, showing him maps of where he served his mission in Brazil, as well as flight patterns for the new airline Neeleman has launched in Brazil — Azul.
"Harry has a good knowledge of the church and asked good questions based on this knowledge," Neeleman said. "It was a real pleasure spending time with him."
The program also takes an inside look at tradition and ritual in three very different Mormon households. Correspondent Kate Snow profiles Al and Juleen Jackson, an interracial couple devoted to their faith and raising five children according to principles much at odds with 21st century American popular culture; Joanna Brooks, a Mormon feminist who questions whether women can truly be equal if they can't hold positions of power in the church; and Mitch Mayne, an openly gay Mormon man who, despite the church's stand against homosexuality, is able to work within the church.
Brian Williams, the show's host, also explores the church's history, controversies and customs with a religious historian, a church official and Abby Huntsman, daughter of former Republican hopeful Jon Huntsman.
Smith said it wasn't a hard choice to devote an entire hour to Mormonism.
"The reasons are pretty simple," Smith said. "America could very well elect its first Mormon president. Many of us know quite little about the Mormon faith. So we wanted to find out what it means to be a Mormon. How the church takes care of its own. And just how successful many Mormons have become. The work ethic. The focus on family and community. All of it will be new to our viewers."
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