It’s January in Pasadena, California, and spouses and producing partners Mark Burnett and Roma Downey are happy for several cast members of “A.D: The Bible Continue,s” who flew all the way in from Ouarzazate, Morocco, to appear at a major NBC press event.
Telling the story of the birth of Christianity, starting with the trial and Crucifixion of Christ, “A.D: The Bible Continues” premieres the first of its 12 episodes on April 5, Easter Sunday, at 9 p.m. ET/PT on NBC.
Talking to me after the press conference, Downey said, “It was lovely and warm. People laughed. We feel very encouraged, and I thought our actors were also enjoying it. They traveled a long way, and sometimes on those panels, you don’t get an opportunity for everybody to get a moment to say something.”
After their huge personal promotional push for “The Bible,” which aired on History Channel at Eastertime in 2013, and then the two-hour movie version of it, “Son of God,” which came last year, Burnett and Downey may have finally gotten the U.S. entertainment press used to talking about God.
“It’s three years in a row,” said Burnett, “’13, ’14 and ’15. And you’ve been on the journey with us. It’s true, it’s become much more mainstream, which was really what our goal was, to go from niche to mainstream.
“And ‘A.D.’ is really great. The idea — how on Earth do these 12 Apostles survive and not get killed by the Romans — which they did anyway, eventually, but not at first. It took years. It was really a hard road to get there.”
“And on a road that was built by the Romans, too,” said Downey, “which was a sweet irony.”
One wonders, though, if, in God’s calculation, there might have been a purpose in putting Christ on Earth at just the moment that those Roman roads could carry His message to a large chunk of the world.
“It would have died out in the desert otherwise,” said Downey. “I think that’s true. Now we have the technological roads.”
Both Burnett and Downey have considerable showbiz cred. Burnett is known mainly for producing such reality-TV juggernauts as “Survivor,” “The Apprentice,” “Shark Tank” and “The Voice,” and Downey is a veteran actress who starred in her own long-running CBS series “Touched by an Angel.”
When they both began talking about faith during production for “The Bible,” it might have come as a surprise to many, especially since Burnett was not previously outspoken about his Christian faith. But Burnett says it hasn’t been a problem — and he’s been able to call on a lot of celebrity friends to help promote his faith projects.
Testimony to all this is that NBC — a network not known for currently airing very much family-friendly programming, let alone faith-friendly (but it does air “The Apprentice” and “The Voice”) — jumped in to pick up “A.D.” for 12 one-hour episodes.
“No one says a word,” Burnett said. “We’ve done a good job, and we’re also very loving to people.”
Said Downey, “We’re not coming from a place of fear, either. We’re coming from a place of love. People can see that our intentions are authentic on this.”
One bonus for both History and NBC is that Burnett and Downey have been willing to shoulder the bulk of the promotion for all their faith projects, including conducting what may be the greatest ecumenical outreach ever for a Christian-themed production. They’ve talked to everyone from Catholic cardinals to Evangelical megachurch preachers to get the word out.
“We’ve made some incredible friendships along the way,” said Downey. “It’s been a personal blessing for us as well. There are good people out there, and they all share a love of the Lord. It’s been a privilege for us to get to visit their churches and meet their communities and hear the hearts of the people.
“One of the great things about the work that we’ve been able to do is that it has this outreach and it has, in some ways, brought people together. We find that very encouraging.
“And come Easter Sunday, because this is on NBC, there will be a bigger conversation occurring across the nation on morning talk shows, on nighttime shows, or around kitchen tables, around the water cooler. People will be talking about faith; they’ll be talking about God.”
Next: More from Burnett and Downey, plus a surprise or two.
Image: Courtesy NBC