For CBS series producer, focus on faith is key

NEW YORK—When John P. “Jack” Blessington of CBS worked with a United Methodist congregation in Manhattan on a televised Christmas Eve service, he looked beyond the seasonal trappings to see how the church was living out the gospel.

John Blessington

Along with the carols and readings, A Christmas for Everyone, which aired in 2010, included a focus on the social justice work and interfaith connections of the Church of St. Paul and St. Andrew.

“We’re kind of a quirky church, and he picked up on all the quirkiness and seemed to embrace it,” recalled the Rev. James K. Karpen, pastor.

Mr. Blessington, the longtime executive producer of the CBS Religion and Culture series, received a special Wilbur award April 6 from the Religion Communicators Council during the council’s 84th annual convention in Indianapolis.

The special award recognized his contributions to public discussions of faith topics for more than 30 years, demonstrating, as Douglas F. Cannon, a United Methodist communicator and RCC president points out, “that faith topics can be approached as news and are not boring.”

Mr. Blessington likes to allow believers to share the stories of their own faith. “I am a church-attending Roman Catholic who argues for ecumenism,” he told United Methodist News Service in a recent interview.

The Bronx native and one-time seminary student joined the CBS staff in 1983 after serving as a headmaster at several schools. For a time, he worked in different sections of the network, then became involved in the religion unit and took over its weekly broadcast. When then CBS President Larry Tisch shut that program down, Mr. Blessington said, the unit moved to the quarterly half-hour program that, along with Christmas worship, became Religion and Culture.

As executive producer, he oversees individual programs and makes sure Religion and Culture survives other changes at the network. “I’ve been able to beat back every attempt to close us down completely,” he declared.


What they believe


Since 1989, Religion and Culture has worked with members of the Interfaith Broadcasting Commission to develop programming. “We try to find out what the people of various religions believe and what they do to help each other and help mankind,” Mr. Blessington said.

Religion and Culture won a local Emmy in New York for one of the earliest television pieces done on hospice care. Other topics have included poverty, civil rights, childhood grieving, food and faith and the sacredness of the earth. The first program for 2013, “Religion & Spirituality in a Changing Society,” aired on Sunday, April 14. That program addressed the religiously unaffiliated in U.S. society who call themselves “spiritual but not religious.”

Shirley Struchen, a United Methodist who worked with Mr. Blessington for a decade as a liaison between the Interfaith Broadcasting Commission and the three major networks, called the producer “a good listener” and noted that he “always wanted to know what the critical issues were” when they were exploring themes for the upcoming year.

He has yet to run out of ideas. “I hear so many good things that are done through the name of religion by religious people in many religions,” he explained.

Mr. Blessington seasons his work, and his own faith, with dashes of humor. When Religion and Culture was nominated for a national daytime Emmy award for a two-part series on AIDS at a time when “no one was doing AIDS at all,” he flew to California expecting to win.

His reaction after losing to the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade? “Oh, my God, we just lost to Bullwinkle,’” Mr. Blessington reported. “It’s been our punch line now for quite a while.”

A more recent Religion and Culture on “HIV & AIDS: Awareness & Compassion,” broadcast last year, featured an interview with the Rev. Don Messer, chair of the United Methodist Global AIDS Fund Committee and founder of the Center for the Church & Global AIDS.


‘Largest classroom’


Mr. Blessington, who recently celebrated his 80th birthday, currently works part time at CBS and is serving as an interim headmaster at a Connecticut school. But, he believes his broadcast career has offered him “the largest classroom that I’ll ever have.”

Educating viewers about one another’s religions has been fulfilling, he said. “Our audiences aren’t huge, but they’re constant. We’re sort of proud of our work and we know it does some good because people tell us [so].”

In addition to the special Wilbur award, Mr. Blessington received a 2013 Wilbur award as executive producer and director of “What They Believe: Hindus, Zoroastrians, Baha’is,” along with Elizabeth Kineke, writer and producer, and Wendy Caplin, editor.

Past recipients of special Wilbur Awards include Bob Abernethy of Religion & Ethics Newsweekly, Former President Jimmy Carter and former first lady Rosalynn Carter; John Dart, former religion editor of the Los Angeles Times; the Rev. Martin Marty, an ordained Lutheran minister, of The Christian Century; broadcaster Bill Moyers of Moyers & Company; the late Rev. Fred Rogers, an ordained Presbyterian minister, of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood; the late cartoonist Charles Schulz, creator of Peanuts; and filmmaker Ken Wales.


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