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The Gospel According to TVOne

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The final show, which producers say will air in April, pitted four choirs from Maryland, North Carolina and Pennsylvania against one another. The finished episode will be an hour long, but the taping took five hours. The downtime was filled with a stream of jokes by the show’s genial host, Jonathan Slocumb, and more than a little praise.

“Richmond has been a wonderful host. Southern hospitality is wonderful. The Lord was in the house tonight,” said a beaming Pastor Andrew J. Ford Sr. after the show. The Anointed Voices of his Ford Memorial Temple in North Philadelphia edged out Charlotte, N.C.’s spirit-filled Greater Salem Church Choir for the top prize.

“The same thing you saw up here tonight is what we do every Sunday,” Ford said. “We minister the Gospel though song.”

“You look at all these shows like ‘Star Search’ and ‘American Idol,’ and you see that TVOne’s audience loves gospel music, so the audience is right and the concept is right,” Tim Reid said.

But it has come with some hurdles. “Because it was new, we really had to promote the concept to the churches and the gospel community,” Reid said. “And a lot of them were not sure about it, frankly. They were unsure about the concept, saying, ‘This is not really about competition. It’s praise music, not one church trying to outdo another.’”

Jewel Booker sings in the choir at St. Paul’s Baptist in Henrico. Her church competed in the early rounds, as did the local New Light Baptist and Fourth Baptist churches.

“It was very exciting for the group,” Booker said. “Just looking at the reviews from the judges, they liked us and said we sounded good; we were radio-ready.” Booker knew why her choir didn’t advance to the finals: “We were tense, and it showed. We were somewhat stiff. That’s usually not us. If you come to St. Paul’s, there’s nobody stiff over there.”

And there was hardly a trace of stiffness at the Landmark. The audience needed no encouragement to jump up clapping when a group caught fire. And some choir members cried and danced and spoke in tongues offstage.

Despite the competitive nature of the show, its tone is been reverent and respectful. The three judges are unfailingly polite, as opposed to their often caustic Fox counterparts.

The closest thing to a Simon Cowell moment: Judge Teresa Hairston, the publisher of Gospel Today, dismissed a Baltimore ensemble in one episode with “The choir robes were great, the flowers in the church were great, but the intonation and the diction wasn’t there. We should probably move forward.” Ouch. (Washington, D.C., DJ April Watts and producer and songwriter Donald Lawrence also serve as judges.)

In addition to “Gospel Challenge,” TVOne Senior Executive Reid and his studio are responsible for generating other programs for the new urban entertainment network, including “Then & Now” and the acclaimed “Cowboys of Color” rodeo. “If TVOne is successful, it will change New Millennium Studios,” heÿsays definitively. “I mean, right now we have three editors going around theÿclock; the machines never stop.”

A Norfolk native and the former star of such network TV staples as “WKRP InÿCincinnati” and “Simon & Simon,” Reid has other plans for home cooking. He wants toÿproduce “Straight from the Hipp,” an “Austin City Limits”-type music show for the new network in Richmond. “The Southern mystique is something that’sÿneeded [on TV],” he explains.ÿ

“Gospel Challenge” is already seeking videotapes of choirs for the next season, from which producers will pick 24.

“There’s a lot going on in Richmond, Charlotte, Atlanta,” Reid says. “I mean, we get soÿmuch from New York and L.A., but we forget that there’s truly a MiddleÿAmerica, and that it’s made up of all kinds of people and all kinds ofÿperformances and talent. And we need to expose the talent. From Joseph Cotton and Bojangles to PearlÿBailey, Virginia has made a name for itself and not just in electingÿpresidents, but also in producing some of the greatest talent the world hasÿever seen.”ÿ

Amen to that.ÿ

“Gospel Challenge” can be seen Sundays at various times on TVOne. Checkÿlocal listings.

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