Why a Christian TV Channel?

Can we regain Control of TV?

by John Wijngaards, Priests & People July 1996, pp. 260-263

There are three main reasons why it is imperative that there should be a Christian TV cable channel.

1. A Christian Channel will ensure a full and fair representation of the Christian point of view on daily issues – social, moral and political.

2. A Christian Channel can promote Christian belief and practice in a balanced and responsible way without falling into the `televangelist trap’.

3. A Christian Channel can provide entertainment equal in quality to the secular channels, while respecting and integrating Christian values.

“You are the light of the world.” Matthew 5,14

“No one, after lighting a lamp, puts it in a cellar or under a bushel, but on a stand, that those who enter may see the light.” Luke 11,33


1. A Christian Channel will ensure a full and fair representation of the Christian point of view on daily issues – social, moral and political.

The news coverage and documentary reports of the BBC, the RTE and the Independent Television Companies in Britain and Ireland are generally of a high journalistic quality. Many producers and reporters attempt to be truthful and fair in reporting issues according to their perceived priorities and values. When reporting involves religion, the same standards of fairness and even-handedness apply and are considered important in deciding the manner of presentation.

Yet, there are legitimate doubts as to whether the secular media do always fully and fairly report on social, moral and political issues that involve Christian agents or that presuppose a correct appreciation of Christian values. Research would seem to indicate the presence of a serious bias against religion in the prevailing system of reporting.

Most research on this bias has been done in the USA, but many of its results can be legitimately extrapolated to apply to Britain and Ireland as well.

Religion is underreported.

A study of weekday prime time news broadcasts on all the major stations in the USA (ABC, CBC, CNN, NBC and PBS) during 1993 found only 212 segments on religion out of a total of 18,000 story segments broadcast. Similar proportions were found in an analysis of morning and weekend news and magazine programmes. See Th.JOHNSON et al., Faith in a Box: Television and Religion, Alexandria VA 1995.

No similar study has been done on reporting in Britain and Ireland. Some good in-depth reporting on religion is presented in programmes such as BBC’s Everyman. Yet, in the general news coverage, religion does not receive the attention it deserves. A study on quality television in five countries including Britain showed that religion, as a category, was almost totally neglected in all-day programming and totally neglected in prime time programming in all five countries. See Quality Assessment of Broadcast Programming, Broadcasting Culture Research Institute, Tokyo 1991, pp. 160-164.

It has been pointed out that by leaving out religion the media present their audiences with a defective picture of society. The media’s defective view includes the assumption that the role of the spiritual is declining in modern society. From their own experience of society in which religion is important and the spiritual not declining, audiences feel confused by this defect. The unease is increased by the fact that few self-described religious people subscribe to religious magazines or watch religious television. The sources for news about their religion must be the secular media. See S.HOOVER, Religion and the News, New York 1994, pp. 14-15.

Religion is presented with a secular bias

Top communicators, who set the national media agenda , are often prejudiced against religion. A study of 240 journalists in the elite American media revealed that most are not practising Christians.

“A distinctive characteristic of the media elite is 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.” See S.R.LICHTER et al., The Media Elite, New York 1986, p. 22.

The same study illustrated that this lack of involvement influenced the way religion was presented in reports.

“The most straightforward news report is the outcome of unavoidable choices that reflect the journalist’s sensibilities in weaving together fact and interpretation. We have illustrated the ways stories can vary according to choices of emphasis, source selection, descriptive vs. insinuational language, and even poetic license that reshapes the facts to fit one’s own truth.” See S.R.LICHTER et al., ib. p. 165.

A separate case study concerned the presence of sustained anti-Church bias in media reporting, referring especially to the Catholic Church in the USA. 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 speak differently.

Although the news on some issues was either favourable to the Church’s position or straight reporting of Church statements, the negatives outweigh the positives in the overall study. 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. The language used carried connotations of conservatism, oppressiveness and irrelevance. See S.R.LICHTER et al., Media Coverage of the Catholic Church, New Haven PA 1991, pp. 74-75.

Stewart Hoover, who has conducted much research on the media, concludes that religion is covered, as is the case with all journalistic ‘beats’, according to a set of received definitions and conventions. Because reporters take the theory of secularization for a fact, they tend to treat religion as a residual category of life at the margins of public discourse.

“The received view of religiosity for media coverage would hold that religion is a private matter, that it is receding in influence, that its adherents are large concerned with their own particular faith and that they construct that faith within rather rigid historical and institutional boundaries.” See S.HOOVER et al., Religion in Public Discourse, University of Colorado 1994, pp. 9 – 15.

Brian Healy, senior political producer for CBS News, testifies from his own experience to the dominance of secular ideology.

“There is rarely any debate in most television newsrooms on abortion, birth control, celibacy, curriculum oversight, gays in the military, premarital chastity or condom distribution in highschools. Most reporters are prejudiced in favour of liberal positions, so that their minds are already made up.” See B.HEALY in Religion and the News, New York 1994, p. 3.

Public perception of the BBC, ITV and Channel 4, measured in studies commissioned by the broadcasting authorities, do not support the view that on the whole television is against religion. However, even among the general audience a majority (56%) believe that all too often television portrays negative stereotypes about religious groups . This view is held less by agnostics, much more strongly by churchgoers. Only very few (less than 20%) feel that religion is not the kind of thing which should be on TV . See M.SVENNEVIG et al., Godwatching: Viewers, Religion and Television, London 1988; B.GUNTER and R.VINNEY, Seeing is Believing: Religion and Television in the 1990s, London 1994.

Conclusion

I want to reiterate once more that studies on broacasting in the USA cannot en masse be applied to the reporting of religion in Britain. We have no reason to assume that producers and reporters consciously adopt anti-religious points of view in presenting their reports. Both the BBC and Independent Television produce some religious programmes of high integrity. The programmers have their religious advisers, listen to the Broadcasting Standards Council and periodically hold consultations on religious broadcasting.

On the other hand, the media elite in Britain and Ireland are not less secularised than their counterparts in the USA. To ensure full and fair representation of the Christian point of view, there is a need of a Christian Channel that can arrange for an in-depth discussion of topics negelected on national channels.

This function, supplementary to the national, more secular reporting, can be achieved by presenting lively debates, talk shows, well researched documentaries. Studies commissioned by ARK2 indicate that over half of the British public would welcome such a contribution.

“You are the salt of the earth.

But if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltness be restored?

It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trodden underfoot.” Matthew 5,13

2. A Christian Channel can promote Christian belief and practice in a balanced and responsible way, without falling into the tele-evangelist trap.

Many people assume that a Christian Channel would automatically need to follow the model of the tele-evangelist channels known from the USA. This is not true. While the tele-evangelist approach is undesirable from many points of view, a balanced presentation of Christian belief and practice can well be harmonised with ecumenism, broad-based and creative programming, high standards of audience involvement and entertainment.

The tele-evangelist approach should be avoided.

Tele-evangelism has the following distinctive features:

  1. The forceful, simplistic and fundamentalist presentation of the Christian message. The tele-evangelists’ theology is simple in its conceptual formulations of ideas and events, at times almost stereotypical. It places great emphasis on the overt experiential and emotional aspects of faith, making it more appealing and engaging to television viewers than other more mystical or conceptual expressions of Christianity.

    The urgency of these evangelicals’ evangelizing activity is communicated well by television as vitality and dynamism compared to the other, more low-key expressions of the mainline churches. These evangelicals have always placed emphasis on dramatic change and interventions by God, making their message more adaptable to television’s predelictions towards sensationalism.

    See P.G.HORSFIELD, Religious Television. The American Experience, New York 1984, p.19. Read also the classical self-presentation of the tele-evangelists in B.ARMSTRONG, The Electric Church, New York 1979.

  2. The unashamed solliciting of money through the religious programmes.Typical fundraising activity offered are: prayers for contributions received, free gifts given to subscribers as incentives, intensive mail solicitation with people who have responded, presenting `emergencies’ to which God is said to expect a generous response, promises of material blessings in return for financial donations, promoting `seed faith’: your gift is a seed which will harvest health, success, prosperity, and so on.
  3. The appeal to a very limited section of the audience. “Research consistently shows that the the typical viewer of tele-evangelist programmes is a white female Southerner, aged 50 or over, with a high-school education and a modest income . . . She is more likely to have had a conversion experience, to believe that the bible is free of mistakes, to believe in a personal devil, to read the bible more often, to talk to others about their faith more often, to attend church services more frequently . . . . The dominant function now being served is not evangelism (in spite of the tele-evangelist claim), but personal inspiration, companionship and support for their specific audiences. See P.G.HORSFIELD, Ibidem, pp. 117 – 120; see also S.M.HOOVER, Mass Media Religion: The Social Sources of the Electronic Church, Beverly Hills 1988.

There is no need for a long explanation why these characteristics make tele-evangelism an inadequate Christian response in a British/Irish context. Suffice it to state that the British and Irish audience for such a channel would be small, indeed. The vast majority of people strongly object to television programmes that push religion down your throat. See M.SVENNEVIG et al., Godwatching: Viewers, Religion and Television, London 1988; B.GUNTER and R.VINEY, Seeing is Believing: Religion and Television in the 1990s, London 1994, p. 91.

Apart from being flawed in many other respects, the approach would be entirely counter-productive.

However, a balanced presentation of Christian belief and practice is natural and desirable on television.

At present, legislation prevents the BBC and the independent terrestrial channels from supporting direct recruitment ( evangelization ) by religious broadcasters. This law is understandable as a defence against the undesirable tele-evangelism described before. On the other hand, the law also suppresses valid Christian concerns.

The legitimate question can be raised whether the ban does not, in fact, constitute a censorship on behalf of the government that infringes everyone’s right to proclaim and spread one’s religion. See A.QUICKE and J.QUICKE, Hidden Agendas: The Politics of Relmigious Broadcasting in Britain, 1987 – 1991, Virginia Beach VA 1992, p. 8.>

It is interesting to note that the general television audience, while rejecting the tele-evangelist approach, would have no objection to a balanced form of promoting Christian belief. Sixty per cent of viewers expressed the opinion that people should be able to promote their religious beliefs on television as and how they choose, with the minimum of restriction. Other majorities thought that religious organizations should be enabled to run their own TV channels, and that more openness in this respect could help people better understand their own and others’ religions. See B.GUNTER and R.VINEY, ibidem, pp. 94, 97, 99.

Since the main broadcasting channels do, de facto, not permit a natural reaching out, Christians will have to resort to running their own channel through which they can freely and responsibly promote their beliefs and values. While respecting the rights and sensitivities of the wider audience, and remembering the limitations of the TV medium, Christian broadcasters will need to speak out.

“You shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you. Then you shall become my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria and to the end of the earth!” Acts 1,8

3. A Christian channel can provide entertainment equal in quality to the secular channels, while respecting and integrating Christian values.

In the previous sections we discussed the reporting of religion and the presentation of Christian faith, because these two topics naturally spring to mind in the context of a Christian TV channel. However, the key consideration for holding an audience is entertainment.

For most people, television is first and foremost the provider of entertainment. Television claims the lion’s share of people’s leisure time. Adults view TV an average of four to five hours a day, children three to four hours a day. This exposes them to continuous and pervasive influences that profoundly affect their views and values.

TV programmes should be attractive. It is important for Christian programmers to recognise the general audience’s need of entertainment, especially during prime-time broadcasting. This is true not only because of the competition by rival programmes on TV, but also by the role television has assumed as a leisure time activity.

The effective presentation of religious values on television encounters many dilemmas, and they often involve quality. A primary consideration in quality is the attractiveness of the programme to an audience.

“A religiously-oriented station which wants to reach the largest possible prime-time audience should recognise what commercial networks have long recognised : that the need of most people at that time of day is to relax and be entertained by relatively undemanding narrative of some sort often sitcoms, mystery melodramas, quiz shows etc. To compete for audience in that time period even religious programmers should recognise that they might have to use one of those genres, adapted to their own purposes, rather than a less attractive form of programming, pious and uplifting though that may be.” See W.E.BIERNATZKI, ‘Quality in Television Programming ‘, Communication Research Trends 15 (1955) pp.1- 39; here pp. 23-24.

Christian entertainment programmes need not succumb to the secular ideology of the day. A Christian channel can, and should, challenge the tacit assumptions and hidden values underlying much of the national daily programming. It can pose this challenge by raising questions and by offering high-quality and wholesome alternatives.

Take, for example the treatment of religion. Religion is a part of life and should naturally occur in stories that reflect life. But if the religious aspect is totally omitted, or consistently presented as ridiculous or antiquated, this hostile approach will erode the audience’s sense of religion.

A study on entertainment television, undertaken by the Media Research Centre of Alexandria in the USA for 1993 and 1994, analysed how religion was presentedl. The analysis covered 3,300 hours of original prime-time programming. The outcome gives substantial reason for concern. “Religion is not on Hollywood’s radar screen to any meaningful degree, and hostility – even bigotry – aimed at religion remains alive”.

The report suggests that more religion is needed in entertainment TV if it is to reflect real life, and that better support for religious themes not only would be good for society, but also would be `good business’. See Th.JOHNSON et al., Faith in a Box: Television and Religion, Alexandria VA 1995, pp.1-10.

This does not mean that religion should become the main topic, leave alone hidden agenda, of entertainment programmes. It means that religion is not suppressed, attacked or minimised, but accepted as a normal part of life.

Then, Television expresses and reinforces the cultural ideology of the moment. Ideological values pervade all programmes: the news and documentaries, but also drama, crime series, quiz shows, sitcoms, TV-games, and whatever else.

  • Why does violence feature so prominently ?
  • Who fixes the rules of the game , branding some as winners, others as losers?
  • What makes for happiness in life?
  • Why are some topics taboo?

In a recent article, Robert Hughes, art critic of Time magazine, exposed the shallowness and callousness underlying many television programmes. He says that the producers of television recognise that there are many important aspects of life with which they are incapable of dealing. In his view their response is cold-bloodedly cynical.

“Because it knows this, because there is a lot of IQ behind it, TV would like to create a mind-set in which those things no longer matter . . . Instead it wants us to content ourselves with a seductive blizzard of images, a fast surface, a few electrons thick, full of what is called information but is in the main just emotively skewed raw data.”

” TV’s content lurches between violence of action and blandness of opinion. And it never, ever stops. Commercialised TV teaches the people to scorn complexity and to feel, not think. Impressions are more important than substantive content, and sensationalism is the rule. TV has come to present society as a pagan circus of freaks, pseudo-heroes and wild morons, struggling on the sand of a Coliseum without walls. Multi-culturalism comes down to a match between the Ethiopian with the trident and the blond Dacian with the net .”

By the end of 1996 the network will have given more TV time to the demented rituals surrounding the murder trial of O.J.Simpson than to the entire history of America itself.” See R.HUGHES, ‘Who Wants to Watch it Anyway?’ , Television, the Journal of the Royal Television Society 32 (1995) pp.6-10.

This state of affairs cries out for Christians to offer their own alternative.

Conclusion

A Christian channel can provide excellent entertainment that is at the same time in harmony with Christian values.

“Whoever acknowledges me before people, I will acknowledge before my Father in heaven. Whoever disowns me before people, I will disown before my Father in heaven.” Matthew 10,32-33