Christy, the CBS series that exhibits a high level of faith rarely seen on network television, is returning as a midseason replacement, and the future of the show could hinge on a two-hour special episode to be aired Thanksgiving night.
The series opened last Easter as the top-rated CBS show for the week, but Nielsen ratings dipped for the remaining five weeks of a trial run. Still, the network ordered 13 more episodes for the current season. CBS president Jeff Sagansky was the show's biggest booster in putting it on the schedule last season.
But Sagansky has become a Sony executive, and Christy faces many hurdles before becoming a regular television fixture.
Advertising pays the bills, and ratings are the bottom line. A Christy episode costs $1.2 million to shoot, which is $300,000 more than the ad-rates revenue generates. (Some of the deficit may be whittled down via video sales.) The series is expensive to produce primarily because of the on-location shooting and the 35-millimeter cinematic process, used in motion pictures, but rarely in episodic television. In addition, Christy's demographics last season were poorest among urban viewers and those ages 18 to 35, the viewers advertisers covet most.
CBS, although finishing first in the Nielsen ratings last season, has languished in third place at the beginning of the fall season. Executives are not likely to be overly patient waiting for a show to build an audience.
Yet there are signs of hope.
Washington Post television critic Tom Shales says that because "CBS is experiencing a multitude of failures now," Christy will very likely be on the air soon. "The network got lots of praise for putting on a wholesome show with religious themes," Shales says. According to executive producer Ken Wales, who brought the Catherine Marshall blockbuster novel to the small screen after an 18-year struggle (CT, April 4, 1994, p. 90), CBS has received more cards and letters commending this show than any other in the network's history.
Wales says "several miracles" have occurred for the show to reach this point, and he has confidently "turned [it] over to the Lord." He would love for Christy to have a five-year run. And an attractive family-viewing time slot would not hurt. When the Thanksgiving special filming took place in September, nine episodes already had been completed as Christy awaited a time slot to replace a canceled series.
FAITH ON THE SET
A largely appealing element of the show has been its setting among the historic and visually stunning Smoky Mountains. The fog across the mountains does not lift until 9:30 in the morning. By that time on the isolated set, actors have long since been out of bed, cleared makeup and wardrobe, and are primed to labor on what will become a 12-hour shooting day.
The series backdrop-a 200-acre farm being leased from a Baptist family-was scouted out by Wales. The school and mission house were built from scratch in the middle of a pine forest, only two miles from Townsend, Tennessee, a small town at the edge of the Smokies.
The network and production company have control over the 140 cast and crew members. In addition to their penchant for personal privacy, many actors are circumspect about their Christian faith. In Hollywood, an outspoken Christian can quickly become an out-of-work Christian.
"The show not only has a religious slant but a moral one," says 19-year-old Kellie Martin, the petite and perky title character appearing in virtually every scene. "It has a good message for families."
"People come up to me and tell me how important the show is to their family," says Stewart Finlay-McLennan, an Australian who plays Neil MacNeill, a doctor with a Scottish accent.
One person who has no trouble talking about faith is Wales.
"Christy can bridge the gap between evangelicals and mainliners, liberals and conservatives, Baptists and Pentecostals," says Wales, who has been around Hollywood since his teenage years as an actor and producer. "Catherine's writings transcend it."
Stunt coordinator Jay T. Rockwell also isn't shy about his own religious views. "We need Christians in the film business," he says. "[But] if the whole group was Christian, we would lose touch with reality."
Wales tries to keep the series faithful to the religious nature of the book. The biblical message rings clear in the Thanksgiving show. The settlers at Plymouth Colony "didn't know what they'd find when they landed, but they had faith," preacher David Grantland tells the schoolchildren in a scene where he talks about how "faith can move mountains."
The Christy set is unlike those of most television shows. There are the expected artistic Hollywood types-young men in their twenties with long hair, earrings, and tattoos-barking orders, hoisting microphones, and moving props. But a culture clash is apparent, due to a cast of 25 children, most of them from the mountains of Tennessee.
Children are an integral part of Christy because the title character is a teacher at a Tennessee mountain mission. Youngsters running around the set-dressed in 1912 attire-contribute to a family atmosphere and have a way of keeping everyone humble.
Although most of the children do not have speaking roles, they are a regular part of classroom and schoolyard scenes. While not the "hillbillies" of 80 years ago, they are not far removed from the values established then. Except for the time warp, these children could be playing themselves.
Becoming a "backstage mother" was an unexpected role for Glenna Debuty, whose 9-year-old son Jayson portrays Zack Holt. When Glenna Debuty signed the first weekly contract, she misunderstood the pay scale as $16.75 per day. "I thought that would hardly pay for my gas." Later, when she learned the salary actually was $1,675 a week, tears welled up in her eyes.
Director Michael Rhodes credits "kid wrangler" Meredith McCarthy for keeping the set running smoothly, even when the children must wear wool sweaters in 80-degree heat for the Thanksgiving show. "If the kids feel their personal needs are met before they get to the set, they're ready to go," Rhodes says. "If not, they'll dig in their heels. It's basic human behavior."
"The kids have 50 adults telling them what to do," McCarthy says. "My job is just to love them." McCarthy makes sure they know their lines and are wearing the right clothes. Between takes, children draw in coloring books, play catch with a football, or snack.
They took an active role in creating props for the Thanksgiving special, shot in only 13 days, including building sets for a school play and making hats with Sears catalog pages dyed in berry juice.
The children somehow manage to cram in the required three hours of school instruction daily. "They have to be able to go with the flow," says Mary McKinnon, who handles teaching duties for the 15 elementary pupils. The older children help the younger ones, much as in the one-room schoolhouse in the show.
Not all the young actors are novices. Personable and precocious 10-year-old Clay Jeter of Clarksville, Tennessee, has acted in commercials and even has an agent. "I play a mischievous little kid. I guess that's type-casting," says Jeter, who aspires to a career in acting after attending Yale University.
At 56, Wales finds himself cast as a father figure for many of the children. He is patient and polite, and consequently, well-respected.
"Ken takes care of us all," says 17-year-old Emily Schulman, who began acting in peanut butter commercials at age 2 and portrays Ruby Mae Morrison. "Ken and [his wife] Susan create a feeling of family. I've never been on a set where I've felt so much love and support."
Copyright © 1994 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
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