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Getting the Word Out: An Interview With Gary Johnson

What do a New York doctor and a deaf FBI agent have in common? Both are main characters on two PAX TV shows created by brothers Gary and Dave Johnson. Those two shows—”Doc,” starring Billy Ray Cyrus as a small-town doctor transplanted to New York City, and “Sue Thomas F.B.Eye,” based on the true story of a deaf woman hired by the FBI for surveillance work—are PAX TV’s bread and butter.

“‘Doc’ is still number one” in ratings for PAX, said Gary <?xml:namespace prefix = st1 ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:smarttags” />Johnson, on the phone from his writing office in Ventura, Calif. “‘Sue Thomas’ is right behind it.” Johnson and PAX are rolling out four new episodes of each show for November sweeps (one of the periods in the year used to determine ad rates).<?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office” />
 
At season’s end, “Doc”—in its fourth year—will have 88 episodes in the can. That’s about a dozen short of what it traditionally takes to move a show into syndication. But it’s likely “Doc” will surpass that number with a fifth season and give PAX the option of syndicating the family show. (The drama’s first season will be available on DVD in January 2004.)
 
“We feel like it’s just God working through us,” said Johnson of both shows’ success. “What we take most joy in is just the fact that we’re able to say what we want to say on PAX TV, which we would probably not be able to do on the major networks.”
 
TV critics have an ongoing debate about the nature of “God shows” on networks, especially in terms of how “generic” God may or may not be portrayed, and how such decisions may be affected by a concern for retaining eyeballs and advertisers.
 
“We talk about Jesus sometimes, and we quoted John 3:16 on one occasion,” Johnson said. “I don’t think we’re losing any viewers, especially on PAX.” Johnson grew up Lutheran in Iowa, and he now attends a Presbyterian church in Moorpark, Calif.
 
“I don’t think we’re alienating advertisers at all,” he continued, adding that the shows’ advertisers are, to his knowledge, quite supportive of the programs.
 
Johnson added that, of course, “advertisers would prefer not to be involved in something controversial,” but he feels that neither “Doc” nor “Sue Thomas” is divisive.
 
“We try not to be in the face of anybody. What we want to do is bring more people into the tent,” he said. “By not being blatantly preachy or earnest, you can do that.”
 
As for God-themed shows—like “Joan of Arcadia”—on other networks, Johnson believes they’re at least “a huge step in the right direction.”
 
“It’s better than ‘Skin’ or ‘Sex in the City,'” he added.
 
Yet, Johnson isn’t surprised by the success of his family friendly shows.
 
“We felt there was an audience out there of families who love to watch TV together,” he said. “We have gotten probably thousands of e-mails and letters from people who say, ‘These are the only two shows that my family watches together.'”
 
Nevertheless, a lot of families don’t even know that PAX TV exists, much less “Doc” or “Sue Thomas.” Johnson said his brother, Dave, often speaks to churches, and he takes informal polls of who has heard of PAX. Johnson said maybe half of the people raise their hands.
 
“Getting the word out is the biggest struggle and the biggest obstacle,” he said. “It takes a while.”
 
Getting the word out is made more difficult, Johnson said, by the fact that the shows aren’t edgy—a characteristic the media look for when hyping particular programs.
 
Johnson pointed to media darling “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy,” which runs on Bravo and occasionally on NBC (GE owns NBC; NBC owns Bravo). “Doc” and “Sue Thomas” garner better ratings than “Queer Eye,” but “we don’t get the publicity they do,” Johnson said.
 
“We don’t push the envelope and aren’t edgy and what the mainstream media considers to be news,” he added.
 
Nevertheless, word does seem to be getting out. With “Doc” in its fourth year and “Sue Thomas” in its second, they beat one or more of the major networks in one or more of the country’s top 40 markets each Sunday.
 
“That’s just a sample of what we think is possible,” Johnson said. “If the body of people who want good, wholesome family viewing will unite and come together, we can move mountains. But you have to convince the gatekeepers that you are a force they cannot deny.”
 
Johnson said the family audience is mammoth—so huge, in fact, it can change Hollywood. It can do so by supporting shows it values more so than boycotting those it doesn’t.
 
For example, Johnson said TV boycotts generally accomplish two things: They give the boycotted shows even more publicity, and they paint boycotters as “right-wing wacko religious freaks.”
 
Johnson sees ratings for his shows not as a tool for personal advancement in Hollywood’s club, but as a marker of things to come.
 
“We just want to bring shows like ‘Doc’ and ‘Sue Thomas F.B.Eye’ back into the mainstream,” he said. And he takes joy in what PAX TV has already been able to accomplish.
 
“To some extent, I think we’ve changed some lives a little bit, and that’s what makes us happy.”
 
Cliff Vaughn is culture editor for EthicsDaily.com.
 
Also read:
 
Faithful Television: An Interview With Gary Johnson
 
Making Family Television: An Interview with Dave Johnson
 
Hearing a Call: An Interview With Sue Thomas
 
Critics Debate the God in ‘Joan of Arcadia’