Writing Archives - October 2006
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Why Does Christian TV Suck?
Alright, not all of it. But most of it!

I've grown up as a Christian. I've grown up working in television. So why don't I watch Christian TV?

Because it's irrelevant to my life... and I'm not alone.

Millions of people call themselves Christians. Millions of people are tired of "riding the remote" when their kids are around.  Millions of people would like to watch television programs with Christian overtones, but they get little or nothing out of most Christian television.

TBN, Daystar, INSP and the other existing networks have paved the way for Christian television, but, in a sense, they are stuck in a rut. They have their audience and they serve them well.  But it's a mere fragment of the audience that Christian television could have.

Why Christian TV Is What It Is

Christian television as we know it began with Jim and Tammy. Technically, TBN started first, with Paul, Jan, Jim and Tammy all working together, but the Bakkers split off and started PTL, which dominated the scene until... well, you know. The Crouches grew slower as they amassed small TV stations and now they own the largest Christian TV network in the world.

Regardless of who's at the helm, the formula hasn't changed much. From Jim and Tammy to Paul and Jan to Marcus and Joni to Rory and Wendy, Christian TV is pretty much the same -- somebody preaching to the camera and soliciting support.

The reason Christian TV follows this format -- and this is key, so pay attention -- is because it is non-commercial (aka, "non-com"). In order to broadcast without paying expensive license fees, Christian programmers have always utilized non-commercial stations and relied on viewer donations to cover their costs.

Just for the record, non-com channels rarely, if ever, give away air time. Programmers pay a lot of money for air time. Your "love gift" to TBN may help keep Christian TV on the air, but it may not keep your favorite program on TBN!  Odds are, the minister you watch on TBN is paying hundreds of thousands of dollars each year to be on TBN. This is true with all of them -- DayStar, INSP, LeSEA, GodTV, the Word Network, whoever. Everybody wants to sell air time because there's good money in it. And the commercial networks, like PAX (now ION) and USA Network, that sell airtime to religious programmers are even more expensive.

A half hour time slot on a non-com station can cost the programmer anywhere from a few hundred dollars to thousands of dollars. For example, let's say your favorite ministry airs on a Large Christian Network. The ministry pays $5,000 per half hour for a good time slot on LCN, five days a week. Maybe LCN throws in a "bonus" airing in the unsold overnight period to sweeten the deal. That's $25,000 per week or $1.3 million per year just for air time. Production costs, salaries and other overhead are additional.

$1.3 million in airtime (plus other overhead) puts a lot of pressure on your favorite ministry to get your donation, whether it's through an appeal ("help keep us on the air") or through product sales ("get this item with your love gift"). That's why a program must have a heavy financial appeal in order to stay on the air.

Viewer support is a double-edged sword. A good minister can garner enough support to cover his or her costs, but that minister runs the risk of getting the "he/she always asks for money" rap. This also means that television does not make sense for a good minister who can't or won't develop a strong appeal.

On the flip side, a television personality who figures out a way to raise enough money can buy as much airtime as he or she wants, even though most Christians cringe at what often passes for "Christian TV." Just ask anyone who's watched Robert Tilton.

As long as Christian television remains beholden to the non-com network model, dependant upon the donations of viewers, Christian television will never change.

Advertising Dollars

Non-com makes sense if you're still living in 1973, but things are different in the 21st century. In 1973, we had six channels in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. Now, we've got hundreds. In 1973, television "broadcast" to a wide audience. Now, television "narrowcasts" to niche markets.

For example, the Hallmark Channel targets women ages 25-54.  Comedy Central targets men 18-49.  ToonDisney targets younger children.  BET targets African-Americans.  TeleMundo targets Hispanics.  And though they may not admit it, Bravo and the Sundance Channel target homosexuals!

Advertising dollars follow audiences.  So with the shift from broadcasting to narrowcasting, the ad revenue has shifted as well. Advertisers are not only concerned with reaching a wide audience during an episode of CSI. They're also focusing their message on the 13-25 crowd watching The Real World on MTV.

This has opened up television advertising to everyone. For just a few bucks, anyone can advertise on the local cable channels. Even satellite is inexpensive. Anyone who owns a business can advertise to their target demographics or their target region... unless they're targeting Christians!

Christians represent a giant niche, but with Christian programming sitting on non-com stations, advertisers don't even think of the "Christian audience" as a viable target group.

However, if advertisers could pitch their services and products to Christians, they would. And within a few years, I believe they will.

Christian TV: The Upside-Down Business Model

So you want to make a primetime situation comedy. What do you do? Allow me to oversimplify the process to make a point.

First, you make a pilot program. You hire actors, writers, a director, and all of the other production people and you make one show.  Then you pitch that show to a network. The network executives ask themselves, "Can I sell commercials for a ton of money during this show?"  The caveat to that question is, "If people are watching!"

From the viewers' standpoint, television is comprised of entertaining shows with commercial breaks. But from a business standpoint, television is merely advertising surrounded by entertaining content. 

So the network gambles on whether people will watch your sitcom, based on your pilot, and airs it around the commercials the network has sold.  Guess what... if your sitcom does not draw a big enough audience (as in "low ratings"), your program is cut.  But if your sitcom draws enough viewers (as in "decent ratings"), then you make enough money to pay all your people, cover all your costs, and buy a house in Beverly Hills. If your sitcom dominates its time slot (as in "Seinfeld"), then you get rich and buy a ranch in Wyoming.

In any successful television scenario, the advertisers pay for the air time, the production cost, and the profit.

In Christian television, the programmer pays for the own air time and production costs. (Technically, there's not supposed to be any profit, but everyone wants to make a little money for their hard work, even if all of it is turned back into ministry.)

Because Christian TV is caught in the time warp of non-commercial broadcasting, Christian TV is completely upside-down!

To take it one step further, look at PBS. They're the old secular non-com, airing Sesame Street, Nova and other educational programs.  With the advent of cable and satellite, commercial networks like Discovery, the National Geographic Channel, the History Channel, and several others now air PBS-type programming, but with commercial breaks.  The result?  More programs, better programs, and financial stability.

The same can be true for Christian television.

The Commercialization of Christian TV

This is not a call to abolish TBN or any of its clones. This is not even a call to try to change them.  In fact, because they are non-com, they can never be the kind of network that is so desperately needed. (I think that Biblical admonition against pouring new wine into old wineskins applies here.  If TBN started airing commercials, they would lose a lot more than they would gain and their audience would probably freak out.)

Christian television must branch out into fully commercial networks in order to reach more people, especially the "Madison Avenue" target audience of 18-49. People will watch Christian television if two conditions are met:

  • It's entertaining.

  • The quality is not so horrid that it's embarrassing.

The standard "preaching/teaching" programming is fine, just like Sesame Street is still good for PBS. But if Christians are ever going to enjoy the wide array of choices that narrowcasting offers, in the same way that educational networks have branched off of their PBS dependency, then Christian television must branch off, too.

The only way for Christian programs to draw enough viewers to earn enough advertising dollars is for them to contain some level of entertainment. (That, and they can't be so technically deficient that everyone watching is saying to themselves, "Wow, this is really bad!")

By entertainment, I don't mean gunfights or girls in skimpy clothing. I just mean something more than a person preaching to a crowd. In other words, more than church. (On an interesting side note, have you noticed that the growing generation of churches are the ones where the pastor doesn't just stand up and preach?  The ones making a real difference are the ones using drama, music, video, and more...dare I say, "entertaining" presentations!)

And no, Christian TV is not required to beat people over the head with a virtual altar call. Every program need not be The Passion of the Christ. Many can be The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe. Christians are perfectly capable of entertaining and edifying at the same time. They just don't have a viable television platform to prove it.

Imagine if you took a drama, like Boston Legal, and made the lead character a Christian? What if every case that lawyer took was filtered through a Christian worldview instead of a non-believer's? Or better yet, make a program about a Christian housewife who shows the other women in the neighborhood how to shed their desperate lives for a purpose-driven life. And wouldn't it be nice if the only Christians on prime time dramas were not prudes, flakes or closet homosexuals!

Will Advertisers Buy Into It?

The Numbers:
Adults in America

80%

Identify themselves as "Christians"

72%

Have made "a personal commitment to Jesus Christ"

71%

Say their religious faith is "very important"

43%

Have watched "some Christian programming" in the past month

37%

Self-described "atheists" or "agnostics" who admit to listening, watching or reading Christian media

12.9%

Considered "black" by the U.S. government

10.7%

Spanish-speaking people

.99%

Households that are gay or lesbian 
Sources: Barna Research Group, CIA World Factbook, Urban Institute

In America, about 90 million people attend church in a given week. There are more Christians than there are homosexuals, but gay shows exist. There are more Christians than Hispanics, but multiple Spanish-language networks thrive.  There are more Christians than most other advertising categories, yet thousands of programs across hundreds of networks are out there pulling an audience and making money.

Can Christian television draw a large enough audience to justify ad dollars? Easily.

There are many programs that exist that have begun to break the mold of Christian TV. My parents, for example, switched from the old preaching/teaching format to an Oprah-style talk show.  Now, LIFE Today draws a huge audience and reaches beyond the "Jim and Tammy" crowd. (I can't count the times people have said to me, "I don't watch Christian TV, but I watch your mom and dad!")

Others are out there, too. Some are starting to catch the attention of the non-com's, like Randy Phillips' music show The Awakening, Kirk Cameron and Ray Comfort's street witnessing show The Way of the Master, the family-friendly Bananas stand-up comedy, and the missionary reality show Travel The Road.

Why are non-com's airing these programs? Because they draw a huge audience.

What little Nielsen ratings are done on Christian television reveal a lot about these programs. All of these shows, even though some air only in the overnight slots when most people are sleeping, pull solid numbers. Some of them routinely out pull your favorite minister!

Why can't these types of shows dominate the non-com landscape? Because they have little or no "appeal" in a monetary sense.

Randy Phillips is incredibly gifted to write music, sing songs, and lead you into praise and worship. The Awakening is fun to watch and even sing along. The Bananas Comedy series is hilarious. Travel The Road is exciting. The Way of the Master is intriguing. But at the end of these programs, the viewer just doesn't feel compelled to "make a vow." And most of the people associated with these programs don't want to beg for your money!

Most people don't support entertaining programs with their wallets. They support them by watching -- and watching faithfully. In the Christian market, advertisers have a buying population that is predictable, loyal and powerful. Madison Avenue is to advertising what Wall Street is to finance. They target adults aged 18-49. Over the next few years, they will discover that targeting commercial Christian television is not only smart, but profitable.

High-quality, entertaining Christian programs will be assembled on a single network and people will watch it in large numbers. If that network can prove its numbers to advertisers, they will buy into it. If the network will then pump those dollars back into programming, it will spiral upwards into a bigger, better network. Not only will this change Christian television, but it will change the world.

Will Christians Buy Into It?

Viewers will not be offended by advertisements as long as two conditions are met:

  • Commercials are not offensive.

  • Advertisers cannot be widely perceived as opposing Christian values.

Advertisers know that they cannot offend their audience and expect to sell their products. Bridgestone may employ a sexy, flashy dance routine around their tires on Monday Night Football, but not on a Christian network. They will have to talk about how quality tires make a family more safe.

Also, you'll have a hard time marrying Coors to Christian TV.  Too many Christians view alcohol as a negative. Same goes for Victoria's Secret, Viagra, and movies like Brokeback Mountain. Bad match for the viewers and advertisers alike.

This is where the networks come in.  The network will have to have the sensibility to know what programs and what advertisers will fly with their audience. This is why we cannot rely on Rupert Murdoch or Disney to create a new niche-network targeting Christians. Just check the programming and advertising that was on Fox Family or is now on ABC Family.  It takes committed Christians to know and care about Christian values.

There are people across the country working toward this goal in one capacity or another. Christian television is about to go through the commercial revolution that Christian radio experienced almost twenty years ago. I am trying to help a new, fully commercial station launch on a satellite carrier right now. It's just a matter of getting existing programmers on board and potential advertisers in line.

Once Christians have a fully-commercial network built on Christian values and airing entertaining programs, it will benefit the advertisers, the network, the programmers and the viewers. And guess what...it will also have an impact on non-Christian viewers who swing by the Christian channel for something other than a mocking laugh.

Don't stop here! Read the updated followup, "The New Christian Media."

 

Devotionals

Snaking the Dogs

You Can Shine

Was Jesus A Failure?

Happy New Year?

A Season of Joy

Peculiar People

Living the Fantasy

Diary of a Roman Soldier

Commentaries

The First Issue

Why Does Christian TV Suck?

The New Christian Media

The Religious Left

 

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