With recent TV movies about nuclear war, wife beating, incest and child sexual abuse, what ground is there left for the networks to break in prime time? Perhaps only this: ABC on Saturday will be broadcasting a TV drama produced by a priest for a Catholic production company.
Father Ellwood Kieser of Pacific Palisades-based Paulist Productions says it's the first time he knows of that a priest and a religious organization have been involved in producing a prime-time drama for one of the networks.
And he ought to know. For the last 25 years, Kieser and his nonprofit production company have produced "Insight," a series that expertly wove moral and spiritual issues into half-hour dramas that frequently sported all-star casts such as Carol Burnett, Walter Matthau, Ed Asner, Patty Duke Astin, Bob Newhart and Carroll O'Connor. It was syndicated to stations around the country but usually wound up consigned to nooks and crannies of the weekend daytime schedule.
He hits the big time Saturday with "The Fourth Wise Man," an hourlong drama airing at 8 p.m. on Channels 7, 3, 10 and 42, and starring Martin Sheen, Alan Arkin, Eileen Brennan, Lance Kerwin, Ralph Bellamy and Richard Libertini.
"I've always had my eye on prime time," admits Kieser, the program's executive producer.
But not for preaching. Unlike TV's large crop of evangelists, whose avowed interest is literally in spreading the word of God, Kieser is interested in telling stories that reflect the spirit of God by showing men and women confronting life's tough ethical questions.
"My job is not so much to talk about God as it is to give people an experience of God's love working within the human situation," he explains.
"The Fourth Wise Man" is something of an exception, however, in that it is pegged to the coming Holy Week and deals with an overtly religious theme. Sheen, a frequent "Insight" performer, portrays a man who arrives too late to see the infant Jesus in Bethlehem and launches a lifelong search to find the man whom he believes to be the Savior. Eventually he does, but not in the way he expected.
Kieser says the project came about through the encouragement of Jim McGinn, director of programming for Bristol-Myers and an occasional "Insight" writer. Bristol-Myers put up the money for the script (by Tom Fontana, co-producer of NBC's "St. Elsewhere"), then helped sell it to ABC by agreeing to sponsor the entire program.
"If this works, I think it will lead to other things," Kieser says.
He's not waiting to find out, however. Kieser already has six other prime-time projects pending at all three networks, ranging from series to movies and miniseries.
In fact, he says that Paulist Productions has laid "Insight" to rest and is concentrating now on moving into the prime-time mainstream--and into feature films too.
"I'm not positive I can make it, but the indications are very encouraging," Kieser reports. "They're not ordering scripts from me to be nice. They're serious."
Kieser, who still says Mass and hears confessions most mornings at St. Paul the Apostle Church in Westwood, says there are several reasons that he has taken this turn.
First, he says, the production company has matured its film-making capabilities, thanks not only to the "Insight" experience but also to its work over the last several years on a series of young people's specials produced for Capital Cities Communications.
Second, Kieser says, he is 55--"an age when you get a sense that if there are still things you want to do, you'd better get to doing them."
Third, the market for "Insight" has been shrinking steadily over the past few years. The series always had been given to stations for free on the stipulation that they not run commercials in it, but the trend now is for stations to profit from their religious programming by selling the time to evangelical preachers.
Fourth, Kieser says, "The networks have changed their thinking. I think there is recognition now that people do have spiritual needs, that they should program for those needs and that if they do, the response and the ratings are going to be there."
He cites the strong showing of "Jesus of Nazareth," even in reruns, as an example. But TV movies such as "Choices of the Heart," which dealt with the murder of U.S. nuns in El Salvador, and series such as "Hill Street Blues" and "St. Elsewhere" also have demonstrated audience receptivity to spiritual themes, he suggests.
Kieser can thank himself in part for this change of attitude. He also is president of the Human Family Institute, the organization that annually presents the Humanitas Awards to writers of prime-time entertainment shows that are judged to have done the best job of illuminating the human condition.
"It has worked," he says of the award that he helped to establish in 1973, "because it has basically communicated to the industry, especially writers, what it should be doing. It says, 'Your job is not only entertainment, it's also enrichment.' "
And that's why now, more than ever, Kieser believes the church must be involved in the medium.
"The family is the No. 1 communicator of values but television is No. 2. We've got to be there," he says.