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"The Bible" bested popular programming like CBS' "60 Minutes," NBC's "Dateline" and AMC's "The Walking Dead."

The debut episode of the History Channel's new miniseries "The Bible" crushed its competition over the weekend. "The Bible" drew 13.1 million viewers in its first airing Sunday night, and added another 1.7 million sets of eyeballs during a subsequent re-airing.

To give some context about how significant it is for a combined 14.8 million people to tune in and watch "The Bible," Orlando Sentinel television critic Hal Boedeker pointed out, "The night’s other two big shows were CBS’ '60 Minutes' with 11.9 million viewers and AMC’s 'The Walking Dead' with 11.3 million."

As the Deseret News reported last week, "The Bible” comes from the creative minds — and the Christian faith — of reality TV godfather Mark Burnett (“Survivor,” “The Apprentice”) and his actress wife, Roma Downey (“Touched by an Angel”).

With four more episodes of “The Bible” still to come — the final installment doesn’t air until Easter — there’s no reason to believe ratings will much wane. But even after the miniseries finishes its high profile first run, its influence will likely continue to reverberate thanks to an extensive merchandising line of study guides and books.

Inter-faith outreach

Bloomberg's Andy Fixmer and Michael White examined Mark Burnett's grass-roots strategy for building the miniseries' popularity: "To promote the series, Burnett reached out to Protestant and Roman Catholic church leaders, touting the project as a teaching aid for use in sermons and weekly study groups."

Last week Canadian newspaper The Globe and Mail reported that “The Bible” is availing itself as a framework for Sunday sermons: “The real masterstroke of the (marketing) campaign may be the deal struck with Outreach.com, a Colorado Springs purveyor of church curricula and multimedia that Burnett says has a sales reach of 180,000 churches. Outreach has made a sermon package linked to ‘The Bible,’ for use in churches every Sunday during the five weeks of the History Channel broadcasts. … The $59.95 package includes ‘five customizable sermons featuring clips from the epic TV miniseries,’ along with a DVD home study guide, a viewing party kit and an advance copy of a book version of the series.”

Prominent pastor Rick Warren, for example, has publicly stated that throughout the month of March he will be tailoring his Sunday sermons to align with the episode of “The Bible” that airs that day.

Greg Johnson, pastor of Utah's Standing Together ministry, voiced enthusiasm about how "The Bible" is resonating among broad swaths of Christianity — but he also wondered whether TV producers will take that popularity seriously.

“That its response has been so wonderful is encouraging,” he said. “Maybe there is something kind of stirring within the hearts of Americans to return to some of the precious and wonderful promises of the Bible. … I would hope that they would respond to the market's craving for good stories, family values, biblical values, traditional values — whatever you want to call them. But I'm not sure Hollywood is bent that way."

More materials

In addition to the sermon kit, Outreach is marketing a line of materials that includes the entire miniseries on DVD, a DVD study kit, an “experience guidebook,” an 8-page Easter booklet, wristbands emblazoned with “I Like The BIBLE” and a novel titled “A Story of God and All of Us.”

Hachette Book Group published “A Story of God and All of Us,” which at the writing of this article ranked 196th on Amazon.com’s list of top-selling books. Hachette is also selling two other books related to the miniseries: “A Story of God and All of Us: Young Readers Edition” and “Reflections: 100 Daily Inspirations.”

Despite its popular groundswell, “The Bible” may not be age-appropriate for all children. Blogging for the Christian Science Monitor on Monday, Lisa Suhay strongly cautioned parents to think twice before permitting their children to view the miniseries.

"After watching the first installment and trailers for upcoming episodes," Suhay wrote, "I think that if you’re not willing to let your elementary-school child watch '300' and the 'Twilight' series you should steer clear of this as a family viewing session."

Contributing: Carole Mikita

Jamshid Ghazi Askar is a graduate of BYU's J. Reuben Clark Law School and member of the Utah State Bar. Contact him at [email protected] or 801-236-6051.