Fox’s sort-of live, sort-of musical version of “The Passion,” the Christian story of Jesus of Nazareth’s last days, was meticulously crafted to be a success. It aired on Palm Sunday, the beginning of Holy Week for Christians. It cast appealing, mostly youthful men (dressed suspiciously like Abercrombie employees) as Jesus and his Apostles; singer Seal as Pontius Pilate; and country superstar Trisha Yearwood as Mary, Jesus’ mother. It was bookended by performances from gospel superstar Yolanda Adams.
It had a 20-foot fluorescent cross carried through the city of New Orleans by a swell of people. It even had Tyler Perry as the host and narrator of the evening, which culminated in the resurrected Jesus (played by Jencarlos Canela) singing Katy Perry’s “Unconditionally” on top of a Westin hotel.
Despite all that, the two-hour special garnered an audience of just 6.61 million, per early ratings from Nielsen, with only 2 million of those viewers falling within the advertiser-coveted 18-to-49-year-old demographic.
“The Passion” faced stiff competition from sources both expected and not. March Madness provided two true nail-biters in second-round games (Northern Iowa-Texas A&M and Wisconsin-Xavier) that both ended in spectacular fashion.
Over on NBC, though, “Steve Harvey’s Little Big Shots” — the unexpected reality hit of this midseason, in which small, adorable children perform astonishing feats — dominated the 8-9 p.m. hour. “Little Big Shots” just about doubled the total audience for “The Passion” and outrated it in the 18-49 demo by more than a million pairs of eyeballs.
In the 9 p.m. hour, early ratings estimates indicate AMC’s “The Walking Dead” was its usual juggernaut self. (Final cable ratings won’t be available until later on Monday, but the show typically scores at least 12 million total live viewers, with at least 7.5 million in the 18-49 demo.)
And “The Passion” did well enough to beat the stuffing out of most of its other broadcast competition.
Still, for Fox, which is in third place for the 2015-16 season — just ahead of a very beleaguered ABC — that wasn’t exactly the hoped-for result.
Just seven weeks ago, the network hit ratings paydirt with “Grease Live!,” which was exactly what it promised: a live version of the musical “Grease” on broadcast television. A healthy 12.2 million people total watched the three-hour spectacle, with 5.5 million 18-49ers tuning in. “The Passion” wasn’t 100 percent live, and it was two hours, instead of three, so this is more of an apples-to-apricots comparison, but it’s worth noting the disparity.
Media buying sources pointed out to International Business Times that “The Passion” could just have been a case of the right show on the wrong network. Fox’s typical Sunday lineup consists of comedies like “The Simpsons,” “Family Guy” and “The Last Man on Earth,” so anyone who tuned in expecting to see those shows, only to be greeted by Chris Daughtry’s Judas belting an Evanescence song, most likely tuned right back out.
Other industry sources speculated that this might also be an indication that the broadcast TV audience for Christian-based programming just isn’t large as you might think. While Tyler Perry’s movies may pull in beaucoup bucks at the box office, and ABC’s annual airing of “The Ten Commandments” on the night before Easter does well enough for Saturday night programming, maybe what most of America really wants is to see is cute kids doing ventriloquism (“Little Big Shots”) and a different, much scarier kind of resurrection (“The Walking Dead”).