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November 5, 2002

New show continues Pax-TV tradition of decent, ‘feel good’ programming

Nov. 5, 2002

By Ted Parks
HOLLYWOOD, Calif. — In her younger days, Sue Thomas cracked tough cases as an agent for the FBI. Now in her 50s, she is a fervent Christian believer. And one more thing—she’s profoundly deaf.

This fall Thomas gets to watch her unusual life unfold all over again on television.

“Sue Thomas, F.B.EYE”—a title reflecting the keen lip-reading skill that made Thomas so useful in F.B.I. surveillance—is part of the new fall lineup on Pax-TV. A David among the Goliaths of American television, Pax promises its viewers, if not explicitly Christian programming, “feel good” shows that take faith and morals seriously.

The new show is the creation of brothers Gary and Dave Alan Johnson, makers of the Pax series “Doc,” now in its third season. The story of a Montana doctor who takes his simple ways and Christian faith to a big-city hospital, “Doc” is Pax’s No.1 rated show.

Gary Johnson promised the new program would be different from run-of-the-mill police shows, with their violence, sex and increasingly rough talk.

“You’ll be able to watch it with your 6- or 8-year-old kids and not have to keep your finger on the remote because there might be things you don’t want them to see,” Johnson said in an interview from his office in Westlake Village, Calif., near Los Angeles. And the show is about much more than whodunit. While the program follows Thomas through cases, it also goes into the human stories behind the professional lives of the characters.

“We’ll get involved in their private lives also,” Johnson said, adding the series will “leave you with a hopeful message.”

Creating powerful television
The show is built on Johnson’s conviction that television is powerful and that he as a Christian needs to think hard about how he uses the medium. While Johnson and his brother stay away from “preachy” shows, the programs they create reflect their values as believers.

“We will never do any kind of story that would be anything other than God-honoring,” Johnson said.

The producer steers clear of the cynicism he believes pervades current television.

“We’re not cynical,” he said. “We’re not dark. We don’t try and push the envelope in any way.”

Instead of crafting sulking characters and bland scripts uncreatively spiced with shootouts and sex, Johnson said he wants his shows written with what he called the “three H’s:” heart, honesty and humor.

“We write as though we’re telling a story about real people,” he said.

And he wants smiles along with the sincerity.

“We like to make you laugh and make you cry and make you think a little bit, all in the same episode,” Johnson said.

A positive influence
The potential for positive influence appeals to Sue Thomas, who serves as consultant for the program about her life. Author of an autobiography called “Silent Night,” Thomas said she had always told her story to glorify God and give his people hope.

Though Thomas was deaf from the age of 18 months, her parents were determined to equip their daughter to survive in a largely hearing world. Thomas learned to talk and read speech. She became a champion skater in her native Ohio. And she went beyond a bachelor’s degree in political science and international relations to do graduate work in Ohio and at Columbia Graduate School of Bible and Missions in Columbia, S.C.

After Thomas started at the FBI by helping train deaf people to classify fingerprints, the agency noticed her ability to read lips. After deciphering a videotape where the camera had failed to capture sound, Thomas began working in surveillance, her unique talent allowing her to eavesdrop on criminal conversations far out of the hearing range of ordinary agents.

Deaf actress Deanne Bray, who plays Sue Thomas in the Pax series, believes the show will reach out in a positive way to the deaf community. Pointing out the diversity among the deaf, some of whom read speech while others rely on signed communication, Bray thinks the program will help parents who may be perplexed about how to assist their deaf children.

And while the show may resonate in the hearts of many deaf, it will also help the hearing understand their non-hearing neighbors, Bray added.

Apart from the career break of landing her first leading role in a television series, Bray said she was learning important spiritual lessons from Sue Thomas.

“We always talk about God,” Bray said, adding she was looking forward to having Thomas as her “spiritual mentor.”

Upholding treasured values
Roger Kemp, vice-president of national program development for Salem Communications, praised the efforts of Pax-TV to provide programming that upholds the moral values Christians cherish. Based in Camarillo, Calif., Salem is a Christian broadcaster with radio stations across the country.

“Pax television is not overtly Christian in its presentation of content,” Kemp explained.

But while Pax contrasts Salem’s explicitly Christian identity, Kemp sees the television broadcaster as an ally in the battle for uplifting entertainment.

“Both organizations are trying to make a positive impact on the culture,” Kemp said.

Jeff Sagansky, president and chief executive officer of Florida-based Paxson Communications Corporation, owner of Pax-TV, said Pax’s “feel good” shows aim at inspiring entertainment that gives viewers “a look at your fellow man not based on .… fear, paranoia, and apprehension, but ... the positive values of love and trust and community.”

“Sue Thomas, F.B.EYE” producer Johnson finds professional and spiritual satisfaction in taking the moral and spiritual high road on TV.

Recalling a story he read about Hollywood producers stressed about how close they could get to the fuzzy line between what’s decent and what’s not, Johnson quipped, “We have to be the most stress-free producers in Hollywood. We don’t want to go anywhere near that line.”

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