ARK2 Christian Television

In 1996 our Centre joined an ecumenical initiative aimed at establishing a fully-fledged TV channel that was called ‘ARK2’. It was an incredibly brave step on our part, though it would fail in the end. In this chapter I want to explain its vision and collapse.

At the time, television in Britain was about to explode. The development of cable and satellite opened the prospect of many new channels next to BBC 1 & 2, ITV and Channel 4. At the beginning of 1996 already 1.2 million homes had the fibre optic cable necessary to receive a full service, then about 50 channels. It was predicted that transmission would be digitalised and channels expand to 200. A similar future was announced for satellite distribution. This seemed to create an opening for a dedicated Christian TV channel which seemed highly desirable.

 Motivations for the ARK2 initiative

It was becoming clear that the secular media did not always fully and fairly report on social, moral and political issues that involved Christian agents or that presupposed a correct appreciation of Christian values. Research indicated the presence of a serious bias against religion in the prevailing system of reporting.

To begin with, religion was underreported. A study on quality television in five countries including Britain showed that religion, as a category, was almost totally ignored in all-day programming and completely neglected in prime-time programming in all five countries. The media’s defective view sprang from the assumption that the role of the spiritual is declining in modern society.

Moreover, religion was presented with a secular bias. Studies confirmed that a distinctive characteristic of the media elite was its secular outlook. “Exactly half eschew any religious affiliation. Only one in five identify as Protestant, and one in eight as Catholic. Very few are regular churchgoers. Only 8 percent go to church or synagogue weekly, and 86 percent seldom or ever attend religious services.” And this lack of involvement influenced the way religion was presented in reports.

A separate case study concerned the presence of sustained anti-Church bias in media reporting, referring especially to the Catholic Church. Christian Churches, like other public bodies, are subject to public scrutiny and to just criticism of course, but they may rightly expect to be treated fairly and to be given a proper hearing. The facts spoke differently. Although the news on some issues was either favourable to the Church’s position or straight reporting of Church statements, the negatives outweighed the positives. Coverage was structured to stress conflict typically between the hierarchy and dissidents among clergy, religious or laity. Descriptive terms applied to the Church emphasized its conservative ideology, authoritarian forms of control, and anachronistic approach to contemporary society.

For a more detailed explanation of my conviction that a more balanced presentation of religion was needed on TV, see my article ‘Can we regain control of TV?’ in Priests & People.

Vision for ARK2

The founders of the new Christian TV Channel, ourselves included, envisaged the channel to appeal to a wide audience highlighting the right values without pushing them down their throats. In general, the channel was to have a lightness of touch and concentrate on those in the audience interested in religion but who reject church services.

Our share in the opening capital, a fortune for us considering our budget.

These are some of the objectives we formulated:

  • “We can be fairly sure of the support of the committed Christian population and will therefore spend more effort towards attracting the 55 per cent who are sympathetic to religion and believe in God without attending church.”
  • “Our vision is to provide a television channel which in an entertaining way will draw people into a new way of thinking about issues and the values by which they live their lives. We wish to offer new talent and lively debate so that viewers will decide for themselves what the teachings of Jesus Christ have to offer to mind, body and spirit. In an age when many people find church attendance unappealing we would wish to provide an alternative route to Christian faith.”
  • “Our position is a questioning one with no ‘preachy’ or pat answers but with an insatiable appetite for debate. We are clearly a Christian channel but one which is not part of the church establishment We stand with the individual as they find their way. Knowing what we believe ourselves but not forcing it on others. We are the channel which feeds the human spirit.”
  • “Our initiative is totally ecumenical and has the support of leaders from all the main denominations. We have set our face firmly against televangelism on the US pattern.”

Organization

Four Christian Charities owned ARK2 Television Ltd. Majority owner was the Templar Trust, whose trustees included the Bishop of Bath and Wells and the Bishop of Wakefield. It had experience in brokering religious television projects in terrestrial television. The three other owners were Housetop Trust [= us], the Harnish Trust and the Gorman Trust. Mr Michael Gorman was Chairman of ARK2 Television Ltd.

Ross Coad, since 1988 Director of Templar Productions, acted as the Chief Executive of ARK2. The Programme Director was Alan Rogers. He had been part of the senior management of the BBC for more than 20 years. He had headed up Current Affairs Magazine Programmes for BBC Radio and then the Schools Department for BBC TV. After that he had been Head of Education for Adults across the BBC’s seven national television and radio channels.

ARK2 rented studio facilities in Bristol. It employed a core staff of approximately 25 people on contract and intended to meet all other needs with freelance and ad-hoc hirings. All craft work was to be on a freelance basis.

The plan was to eventually transmit for 12 hours each Monday to Saturday, starting at 2pm, and 18 hours on Sunday, starting at 8am. Each programme would be transmitted twice within the week. Some documentaries, films and features were to receive a double transmission twelve months later. Meanwhile some constituent parts of long magazine sequences would be repeated within a fresh magazine six months later.

The programme was to include: magazines; documentaries; phone-in counselling debates; music shows; church services; children’s programmes; adult education; sports personality programmes; Christians in politics, drama and entertainment; films;  family dramas and news phone-ins. As well as a daily magazine programme there were to be weekly specials on politics; an issue debate led by Libby Purves, films and documentaries. Sports, produced by Grand Slam Productions, would feature a news magazine hosted by Kriss Akabussi and a soccer skills series. Weekly arts and entertainment slots were to present orchestral and dance performances as well as new talent, satire and review. Nightly, there was to be a teenage special with Christian rock, gospel and rap; and a live ‘people show’ with phone-in counselling on emotional, practical and spiritual problems. I outline all the details here because it shows how widely the programme plan extended . . .

The idea was that ARK2’s income, once transmission were to commence, would be drawn from viewer-subscription quotas (via cable operating companies), airtime advertising and sponsorship revenues. These income streams, it was hoped, would make the channel self-supporting within months of launching.

Rise and Fall

The long and the short of the story is that ARK2 lasted only for one year. It collapsed even before its first TV programme could be transmitted. I have described its downfall in an article for the Tablet entitled ‘The Ark that sank’. No need for me to repeat that account here. A few observations will suffice.

Cartoon in the Tablet, July 1997.

The immediate reason why ARK2 folded up was a financial disaster. The Uplink cable station in South Africa showed great interest in our plans. In the end, through a contract worth £ 1.2 million, Uplink commissioned ARK2 to produce a range of programmes. On the strength of this development, production was started in Bristol. Apart from work done in our own studio, other specialist studios and freelance artists were drawn in on sub-contracts. Then the catastrophe. Uplink collapsed. It could not pay for the production already done. This meant in turn that we could not pay the individuals and companies for work they had delivered. Our debt ran in hundreds of thousands of pounds. We had to apply for voluntary liquidation . . .

Obviously, some serious miscalculation had happened. Uplink’s credentials should have been examined more thoroughly before it was accepted as a trustworthy partner. Local complications in South Africa were not properly evaluated. But was ARK2 doomed anyway?

In the sudden proliferation of new channels, giant companies fought to acquire the specialised channels they wanted. They captured the larger audiences. We were pushed to the periphery. ARK2 proved no David able to slay an assembly of Goliaths. It is very doubtful we would ever have been able to generate enough revenue to survive.

Moreover, with hindsight, our programme vision was too wide, too vague, too indistinct. We did not realise that, in order to survive, TV channels would need to specialise, as can be seen from examples like these: history; horse racing; cruises; Indian cuisine; rugby; mountain climbing; you name it. Televangelist channels do well precisely because they appeal to dedicated fundamentalist Christians. ARK2 had been designed as an all-purpose shop in the traditional village high street. In the modern shopping mall of TV channels only highly specialised market stalls survive.