Gospel music is a multi-million dollar business rooted in the soul of the African-American church. It is the music that encouraged the spirits of slaves. Gospel music was at the crux of the civil rights movement. It emboldened its leaders and supporters as they strategized and marched for justice and equality singing gospel songs like “This Little Light Of Mine.” Today Gospel artists and the music have moved beyond the church base.
Gospel artists are cashing in on reality TV. Billboard reports that 10 million Christian/Gospel music titles were sold in 2013, proving that it is a healthy genre even amid a general climate of declining record sales.
A large African-American Christian population is consuming gospel music. According to the U.S. Census, the African-American Christian population was 32 million in 2013. Pew Forum states that African-Americans are more religious than other ethnic groups in the United States. Eighty-seven percent say they ascribe to some form of religious affiliation. This has opened up an opportunity for faith-based entertainment to be created for this audience.
The mainstream entertainment world has recognized the potential revenue to be made from faith-based programs. It has created gospel reality TV shows utilizing some of the gospel and Christian world’s top selling recording artists. Kirk Franklin and Mary Mary are two of the genre’s mega stars. They are platinum selling, Grammy winning artists who have parlayed their success from gospel music into popular gospel reality TV shows on major cable networks.
Kirk Franklin is the executive producer and host of BET’s Sunday Best, a gospel version of American Idol. Mary Mary recently concluded season three of their self-titled reality show on WeTV. The show follows sisters Tina and Erica Campbell as they juggle children, husbands and careers while keeping their Christian faith at the forefront. According the Hollywood Reporter, Mary Mary has averaged an audience of one million per episode.
TV By The Numbers reports the show came in at number two on the social media guide among Thursday night cable reality TV shows. Mary Mary’s Twitter comments exceeded season two’s premiere by 20%. Kirk Franklin’s Sunday Best also achieved high ratings in its seven season run. TV By The Numbers states that the show has scored an audience over two million. Franklin is also the co-host and musical director of the American Bible Challenge, the Game Show Network’s (GSN) entry into faith-based reality TV. It received GSN’s highest ratings when it debuted in 2013. American Bible Challenge is hosted by comedian Jeff Foxworthy. It has been seen by 21 million cable TV viewers.
Other top-rated reality TV shows starring gospel artists expanding their profits to mainstream television are Bravo’s Thicker Than Water, BET’s The Sheards, and Preachers of L.A. on Oxygen. Thicker Than Water stars the Tankard family led by Ben and Jewell Tankard. Ben is a gospel record label owner, gospel jazz pioneer and pastor of Destiny Center Church in Murfreesboro, TN. The Sheards, which airs on BET, stars Grammy nominated gospel artist Kierra Sheard, her parents, Bishop J. Drew Sheard and gospel singer Karen Clark Sheard, and her brother, J.D. Sheard, a music producer.
Preachers of L.A. stars Grammy nominated gospel artist and pastor Deitrick Haddon. His cast mates are Bishop Noel Jones, Pastor Jay Haizlip, Pastor Wayne Chaney, Bishop Clarence McClendon and Bishop Ron Gibson. All of these shows have averaged one million viewers per episode. They are feeding the market’s growing appetite for faith-based programming. Jackie Patillo, president and executive director of the Gospel Music Association said, “It’s been exciting to see major cable channels having a view into our world…so obviously, these different networks are acknowledging that there are Christians out there that want to watch Christian content.”
DA Johnson, General Manager of Light Records/E One Music in Nashville sees gospel reality TV as an opportunity for the artists to sell more music. He said, “If you’ve only sold a few thousand units at the height of your career…now when you’re exposed to millions of people…other denominations…other races…you just cross all the divides…now they know your name…they know your face and…you also sing. And then they go back and search for other things that you’ve done once you’ve peeked their interests. And now they’re exposed to your music, new music as well as your catalog.”
According to an article written in the Los Angeles Times by Gerrick D. Kennedy, reality TV has helped other musical genres’ artists as well. R&B singers such as K. Michelle of Love and Hip Hop and the veteran singers of R&B Divas LA by breathing new life into their careers and acting as a promotional tool for their music.
Although gospel artists with reality TV shows have bathed in ratings success and created a new stream of revenue outside of gospel, it has not been a heavenly walk down the road to profits. Gospel reality TV shows have met with their share of controversy. Best-Selling author and Dallas mega church pastor Bishop T.D. Jakes criticized the cast of Preachers of L.A. for their lavish lifestyles displayed on the show. According to Christian Post, Jakes said during one of his church services, “Now, I know you been watching that junk on TV. I want to tell you right now, not one dime of what you’re sowing right now will buy my suit. I want you to know my car is paid for.”
Ben Tankard also received some unexpected backlash from his family’s lifestyle showcased on Bravo. Tankard stated, “It’s been bitter sweet…I was not expecting that…You know I’m a motivational speaker for the NBA. I’m an aircraft owner and pilot and I rent out my planes when I’m not using them. I do over a hundred concerts a year, (I’m) a producer and writer and so my house, my many cars, my toys, boats, planes, whatever, all of that was financed through work of my hands busting my behind for twenty-five years.”
When the show’s promotional trailer aired on Bravo in 2013 it did not reveal that Ben and Jewel Tankard had established their wealth as entrepreneurs and not as pastors. Tankard stated, “It never crossed my mind through editing…that people might see the trailer and might see the pilot of the show and see me preaching in the pulpit at the church and then it would automatically flash to the home and the cars and people would go, ‘Oh, there’s another pimp preacher living off the backs of the people.’ I was totally blindsided.”
Tankard said the family took steps to remedy the misconception about how they acquired their millionaire status. “After the first episode we had to go on a mini-promotional tour and allow people to ask us who we are…because a lot of people didn’t know who I am. A lot of people don’t listen to gospel or jazz music so they were like, ‘Where does this guy get all of this money? It must be from this church.’ But once people got past that prosperity angle and black folks being successful, and the haterade calmed down, they really fell in love with the show. Because everybody could see…I wasn’t a pimp and living off the people. They…could see on Thicker Than Water that there’s somebody on the show that reminds them of themselves or somebody in their family. And everybody goes through the same thing, no matter what tax bracket they’re in.” Gospel reality TV shows reveal the inner workings of the star’s personal, business and ministry aspects of their lives. This can be unsettling for the artists. It is also disturbing to the people who place their clergy and gospel artists above the fray.
Elvin Ross, musical director and music producer for Tyler Perry’s films and TV shows, is one of those people. He believes some faith-based reality TV shows reveal too much about the star’s lives. He said, “The problem for me is, when the world has its issues, they need to be able to identify where the hospitals are…when we’re hurt…and if we see people of the cloth living like we live…the hospitals and places of worship become just like the world and the effectiveness, in my opinion, is lessened…and the lines become blurred as we keep putting our personal lives out there and our hardship.”
Christian Rap pioneer and Youth Pastor Mike Hill of Abundant Life Fellowship Church in St. Louis said gospel artists have a right to make money on gospel reality TV. He experienced success in the music business as a member of the 90s Christian rap group E.T.W. (End Time Warriors). Hill said, “We’re trying to have a moral conversation in an economic environment…I had a friend in the music business who asked me, ‘Do you want to make records or do you want to make converts?’ I said I want to make converts. He said, ‘You should have never signed a record deal. This isn’t a convert deal. This is a record deal.’”
What is driving gospel artists to seek revenue streams outside of gospel music and the church? The answer may lie in declining records sales. Although the gospel industry has remained more stable than other genres, according to Billboard, it has experienced a -3.4% dip in sales. Christian/Gospel music sales dropped significantly from 22 million in 2012 to 10.3 million in 2013.
Willie Moore, Jr., is another artist cashing in on faith-based television. When his Christian hip-hop music sales dropped, he took his inspirational and comedic message to YouTube. His Willie Moore Jr. Live channel has received one million views since it launched two years ago. This success led to TV deals.
Moore’s syndicated Gospel/Christian talk show, #Flatout T.V. airs on TBN’s (Trinity Broadcasting Network) Juce TV channel and the NRB Network (National Religious Broadcasters) on Direct TV. These Christian networks together reach over 100 million households making Moore’s potential reach into the Christian marketplace significant.
Moore believes mainstream cable networks are investing in gospel reality TV shows because of a minimal risk factor. He said, “These people are not in the club every week, risking their lives. They are not out doing crazy things that might not allow them to get another season next year. These people are at home. They are living structured lives. And they’re able to get that longevity. And any artist or any film, or any show that they have, you want to get that longevity. I believe it is not as risky to deal with a person of faith.”
This investment is apparent with the crop of gospel reality TV shows the major cable outlets are producing. The ratings success of shows on Oxygen (Preachers of L.A.), Game Show Network (American Bible Challenge, It Takes A Church), Lifetime (Preachers’ Daughters), BET (The Sheards, Sunday Best) and Bravo (Thicker Than Water) has opened the door for more faith-based reality shows at the networks. Kirk Franklin is expected to debut his latest reality TV show Gone Gospel on BET later this year. Oxygen will also debut Fix My Choir, hosted by Deitrick Haddon and Destiny’s Child’s Michelle Williams this fall.