In 1994, as veteran nbc News reporter Bob Abernethy returned to the United States to retire after a five-year stint in Moscow, he pondered how to spend the rest of his life. He resolved to help television do a better job covering a long-ignored beat: religion.

"Even from 5,000 miles away, it was clear that there was a lot of growing attention in the U.S. to what was perceived as the problem of the national media ignoring religion," says Abernethy, who spent four decades at nbc. "It seemed there might be a niche for a national weekly half-hour news program on religion and ethics."

Abernethy, now 70, launched a one-man crusade that met resistance from networks and foundations. But when he called on the Public Broadcasting Service and the Lilly Endowment, both enthusiastically endorsed the idea. In 1995, Lilly gave two grants totaling $5 million, one of the largest donations to a single recipient in its history, enabling Abernethy to establish an office and begin work on the first year's 39 half-hour programs.

Last September, Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly debuted to little fanfare and sparse audiences. But in the past six months, the show has been receiving growing attention and acclaim for its mix of news and features. Abernethy says the program is the first of its kind not funded by a religious institution.

BROAD, BALANCED COVERAGE: Similar in some ways to pbs's nightly News Hour, the weekly show begins with a summary of religion news from around the world before examining a few topics at greater length in feature stories and roundtable discussions. Each program closes with a calendar segment, which explains the meaning and relevance of forthcoming religious celebrations and holidays.

Some roundtable discussions in early episodes ...

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