by John Wijngaards, The Tablet, 12 July 1997
A bold attempt to establish a broad-based Christian television station in Britain has ended in failure. The director of the Housetop Centre for Communications in London who was a member of the board of ARK2 mourns a lost opportunity.
The liquidation of the Christian television channel, ARK2, because it ran out of money before it managed to begin broadcasting, is hardly a disaster equivalent to the sinking of the Titanic. Yet it deserves serious reflection. ARK2 attempted to launch a professional, Britishbased, Christian TV channel on a nontelevangelist, ecumenical ticket. What went wrong?
A number of questions spring to mind. Did ARK2 respond to a real need? Was its vision realistic? Will a Christian cable station ever be able to survive in a television world dominated by secular media conglomerates? Does the funding of Christian TV programmes rank lower on the scale of Christian priorities than maintaining churches and schools?
ARK2 certainly sinned by the boldness of its assumptions. At a time when most Christians do little more than talk about the need for a new evangelism and of the importance of the media in this context, ARK2 decided to act. It firmly believed that something should be done to create a stronger Christian presence on Britain’s most popular medium, television.
Not in the form of preaching, nor through televising church services or reports on parish jumble sales; but by offering a challenge. It hoped to present entertaining programmes which would draw viewers into a new way of thinking about the real issues, and about the values by which they lived their lives. Though Christian in inspiration, ARK2 aimed to point out an alternative route to Christian faith for the many who have been estranged from church attendance.
It is vital that religious programmes should remain a part of public service broadcasting. Their value as a suitable Christian presence in the media is greatly reduced, however, by certain drawbacks. Currently, only one peak-time religious programme is offered on the whole of British network TV. Moreover, when religion is discussed, reporters follow their journalistic instinct in focusing on what is negative, sensational or controversial. As a result many Christians feel under-represented on television and would welcome programmes at convenient times which show Christianity engaging with the whole of life.
ARK2 was preparing a number of imaginative series that would meet this demand. Eye-to-Eye was to be a fast-moving topical magazine, providing challenging fare for daytime viewers tired of “comfort television”. In 2 a prominent person was to confront a hostile audience to defend a Christian principle. Other regular features were to include: You don’t have to be Jewish (Jewish affairs and entertainment), Wild Heaven (prayer in daily life), Medical Dilemma, This Week in Soaps, Tough Love (a nightly counselling service), Midnight Rock (music from Christian bands), and First Principles (a weekly panel on politics).
Studies conducted for ARK2 by the Susie Fisher Group and the NOP agency in 1995 had indicated that this kind of programme would attract a sizeable audience also among those who do not attend church. More than half the adults interviewed thought that ARK2 would do a better job than existing religious programmes on terrestrial channels.
Starting a Christian television station became a prospect in 1995 because of the development and expansion of cable and satellite TV. Although satellite initially took the lead, cable television has gradually emerged as the likely television medium of the future. At present about l.6 million homes have the fibre-optic cable necessary to receive the full service, currently about 50) channels. By the turn of the century it is expected that six million homes will be receiving cable television and that the service will be digital, thus capable of carrying 200 channels. Some of these will be Christian, surely, but of what kind?
Televangelists will certainly be on the scene. They have the edge because they come with American dollars and cases full of programmes made in the United States. Christian Channel Europe, which can already be received in large parts of Britain, offers a foretaste.
ARK2 wanted to establish its presence before outsiders came in, and before the scramble for channels by commercial producers had limited the options. It combined Christian sponsorship through charities involved in TV production, mainly the Templar Trust and the Housetop Trust, with the professionalism of Christians who had proved their merit in public service broadcasting. To capture the high ground, the channel set April 1996 as its launch date.
A financial analysis by Team Saatchi seemed to leave no doubt that the channel, once it was up and running, could be made economically viable. The income would flow from cable subscribers, advertisers and commercial sponsors. But starting capital was needed to pay for the rent of studios and equipment, employment of production staff and uplinking facilities. The money, it was hoped, would come from Christians pooling their resources to make this possible. A vigorous campaign was launched through mailshots, founder tables (hospitality for major donors) and roadshows in hundreds of centres throughout Britain. Grant-making charities and wealthy individuals were approached. Donations flowed in, hut not enough.
Fund-raising for ARK2 was seriously hampered by adverse publicity in 1996 ahout the teething problems being experienced hy Premier Radio, the Christian broadcastiug station in London. In addition, distaste for televangelist programmes seriously affected many people’s view of ARK2. as they assumed that any Christian TV channel would bear the same stamp. But the most serious obstacle, without doubt, was a widespread and alarming inertia.
Traditional charitable causes were well understood and presumed to be of a higher priority than setting up a Christian TV channel. Church leaders of all major denominations expressed support for ARK2, but few translated this into support for finding the money, It was tacitly assumed it would happen by itself. It did not.
ARK2 decided to postpone its launch to the end of 1996. It was an unavoidable hut tragic turn of events. By then the cable scene was changing beyond recognition. Ten major cable service providers were carving up the country, with takeovers and mergers which were unsettling previous arrangements. The choice of available channels and the conditions on which they were offered became more restrictive. Promises to carry ARK2 programmes from October, then December, of that year were not fulfilled. Nor were other promises.
As ARK2’s plans became internationally known, it was realised by Christian broadcasters elsewhere that here was a tempting alternative to televangelist productions corning from the United States. The Christian station operated from Bangkok for the Far East Asian Bishops’ Conference showed interest; so did SATI, broadcasting from Cyprus for the Middle East, the Media Centre in Malta, Australian stations and the Uplink cable station in South Africa.
Uplink commissioned ARK2 to make programmes in a contract worth £1.2 million, and it was on the strength of this contract and other prospects that production of programmes was begun in Bristol from October 1996. Uplink failed to pay for them, however, and so, from December last year, all production stopped, resulting in heavy losses for ARK2. Subsequent attempts at refinancing, some of which looked promising until the last moment, drew a blank.
What can we learn? ARK2’s failure does not prove its vision to be wrong. The ethos of the greedy and secular 1980s has been replaced by a new mood in society which seeks for the spiritual and aspires to something beyond the materialistic. ARK2’s mix of professional broadcasting, entertaining presentation and challenging content responds to a need felt both in Britain and abroad.
Media analysts believe that terrestrial channels will continue to attract about 60 per cent of TV audiences. The remaining cable channels will meet the needs of a niche market. Studies reveal that most people watch a limited number of channels: subscribers typically view the terrestrial channels, plus three or four favourite cable or satellite channels regularly. In the same way that Christian weekly newspapers supplement the national broadsheets, a challenging Christian TV channel would make a vital contribution to national TV.
ARK2’s collapse has serious financial consequences for the founding trusts that put in their reserves, the chief executives and staff members who risked personal resources, and production houses that were commissioned. Many area workers, founders, volunteers and well-wishers who had great hopes for ARK2 will also be sorely disappointed.
Will all the effort and loss have been sustained in vain? I hope not. Most revolutionary new projects in the Church’s history have had to run the gauntlet of inertia and failure before leading to tangible and lasting results. The grain of wheat needs to die before bearing fruit. A Titanic needs to sink before other ships can safely cross the ocean.
Scanned courtesy of John Strange