Time for Everything
1/29/13 at 01:23 PM 13 Comments

Rethinking Religious Television, Part 1

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JOT the Dot.

When televangelism emerged over 50 years ago, there were just a few TV networks. It was easy to grab a large audience with a TV program airing in primetime. In 1955 Oral Roberts began broadcasting his crusades to an audience of millions. [1]

Various denominations responded to the new technology by producing shows for children. The Southern Baptist Convention developed the animated JOT and the Lutheran Church in America produced Davey and Goliath. [2]

As the number of television channels increased, religious television became niche programming and its reputation was harmed by scandals and the prosperity gospel.

Religious programming has so much potential but it goes unrealized due to misplaced priorities by the religious broadcasters.

The televangelists often justify spending large amounts of money on airtime based on the belief their programming is an effective form of outreach. But the role of the church goes far beyond evangelism and making converts. In the Great Commission Jesus commanded his followers to make disciples.

Televangelism is primarily a one to many approach. Usually one person speaks and many people listen. Television is excellent at disseminating information via news and providing entertainment but discipleship is not a strength of religious TV.

Where are the Christian "content engines" and Christian hit shows?

Secular broadcasters operate with a different mindset and religious broadcasters could learn much from the secular competition.

In a 2009 interview Disney executive Anne Sweeney revealed a different way of thinking about TV channel programming. Paid Content asked Sweeney, "Is there an advantage to ABC to having three big networks at Hulu?" She responded with, "I don't think of them as networks. I think of them as content engines. Is there an advantage to having hit shows available? Yes." [3]

Trinity Broadcasting Network has generated more than $2.4 billion in revenue since 1997 from selling airtime to preachers, collecting donations and investing excess funds. [4] The network has the financial resources to produce a quality TV series that could compete with secular networks but hasn't attempted such an ambitious project.

7th Street Theater

In 2004 Christian filmmaker Dave Christiano started shooting 7th Street Theater with a small cast and crew. The episodic TV series told the stories of a group of actors operating a community theater as an outreach project. The actors performed skits to share their faith and the TV series focused on the actors' life experiences, temptations and relationships.

When Christiano approached the religious networks about broadcasting the series, he was surprised by the responses. The religious networks viewed dramatic programming as an almost unnecessary expense. When the series was broadcast on the religious networks, it was often assigned a poor time slot and rarely in primetime. TBN broadcast season one on Saturdays, the day with the lowest number of TV viewers. [5]

Have you ever bonded to a Christian character on TV?

A 2009 study revealed that lonely people bond with their favorite TV characters. Canwest News Service quoted State University of New York at Buffalo researcher Jaye Derrick as saying, "We need connections to other people almost as much as we need food and water." Derrick added, "To me, it made sense that television could be an extension of that need, a way of temporarily fulfilling that need while we aren't able to seek connection to other people." [6]

There are very few Christian characters on television portraying what it looks like to follow Jesus Christ. Yet the Church and the world need Christian role models. The Apostle Paul once wrote, "Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ." - 1 Corinthians 11:1

P.S. Future articles in this series will explore content creation, accountability, funding, interactivity, and internet delivery of video.


[1] The Legacy of Oral Roberts, Oral Roberts Ministries
[2] JOT TV Series and Davey and Goliath, Wikipedia
[3] Disney's Anne Sweeney Talks Hulu: It's All About Casual Viewers, Paid Content, May 1, 2009
[4] Trinity Broadcasting Network's official name is Trinity Christian Center of Santa Ana. TBN discloses financial information on 990 forms filed with the IRS. These forms may be downloaded at Guidestar.org
[5] Disclaimer: I worked on the TV series 7th Street Theater as a production assistant and dolly grip. I also close captioned the episodes.
[6] Lonely? Bond with a television character, Canwest News Service, April 27, 2009

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