When the long-awaited CBS television project Christy premieres on Easter Sunday, producer Ken Wales knows he will not yet be able to relax. After an 18-year struggle to bring Catherine Marshall’s novel before the cameras, Wales still must achieve a major ratings success to ensure its survival beyond the TV movie and six weekly episodes already filmed.

‘It’s a bit like Field of Dreams. If we produce it, they will come,” says Wales. “The question is, ‘Will they come?’ and I think the answer is yes.”

Christy, a faithful adaptation of the eight million-copy bestseller, stars Kellie Martin, the Emmy Award nominee who played Becca of Life Goes On, as a 19-year-old teacher at a Tennessee mountain mission. Wales is counting on support from Christians and other family-oriented viewers who have complained about the content of television programming.

Wales labored unsuccessfully for nearly two decades to find backers for a motion-picture version of Christy. Two years ago, he rejected CBS’s offer to do it as a series, still hoping for a film version. CBS produced Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman instead. When the network approached Wales again last year, he realized it was probably God offering a second chance.

Christy needs to draw a big audience from the beginning to convince CBS to make it a full-fledged series and for the network to pursue similar projects. Wales thinks his show is well-suited to religious audiences.

“The ideal thing,” says Wales, “would be for every pastor to say to the congregation [on Easter Sunday], ‘We’ve worshiped, now go home, and enjoy a lovely feast, and then gather with the family following 60 Minutes and enjoy a beautiful experience.’ ”

Good reviews

Christy is already earning critical support. Michael Medved, author of Hollywood vs. America, and Quentin Schultze, author of The Best Family Videos, praise the show and its treatment of faith.

Industry heavyweight TV Guide declared that Christy “is as close to that Little House on the Prairie feel as anything we’ve seen, with rugged, authentic locations and strong characters to care about.” USA Today called Christy “the best show of this new batch” of family-oriented series that have followed in the footsteps of CBS’s successful Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman.

“The main thing is that this is the kind of program that will make big money and be around a while for CBS,” says Donald Wildmon, American Family Association (AFA) president. Wildmon, who failed in a belated afa writein campaign to resurrect NBC’s Against the Grain last fall, says he has been trying to spread the word about Christy. “But they’re going to have to give it time; they can’t run it four times and say it’s not going to work.”

Wales’s series has important advantages, including the investment by production company MTM ($4 million for the TV movie; $1.2 million for each hour-long episode), the popularity of four-time Cagney and Lacey Emmy winner Tyne Daly, and its prime-time Easter premiere following the highly rated 60 Minutes.CBS is also counting on the drawing power of Marshall’s book.

“After I got [the part], I read the book, and that made me even more excited, because the book is wonderful,” says Kellie Martin. “Whenever I had a question about a scene, I’d just go back to the book and see what happened before and what happened after.”

Martin says her grandmother is excited because Christy is her favorite book. “My friend, who is 18, watched the show and went, ‘Oh my gosh, Randall [Batinkoff, who plays minister David Grantland] is the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen.’ You’ve got the 18-through 70-year-old viewers right there,” she says.

The show was to debut the first week in January but was delayed until April 3, to Wales’s relief. The delay avoided competition with college bowl games, and it allowed for testing preview audiences. CBS then heavily promoted Christy during the highest-rated Olympics in history. Beginning April 7, CBS will air six one-hour episodes on Thursdays at 8 P.M. (EST), the time slot once filled by The Waltons.

Viewers may be surprised with the level of faith reflected in the network program. Sin and the necessity of relying on God feature prominently in the movie. The opening scene of the first weekly episode features the main characters united in prayer and psalm-reading.

“We see several times when [Christy] comes close to quitting,” says Wales. “As that doubt deepens and gets serious, what does she do? She turns to God, not simply for the answer, but ‘God, help me to know, help me to choose. Use me, and if you want to use me, I’ll stay and keep my commitment and do this.’ ”

By John Zipperer.

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