Christian television is in a state of upheaval with several broadcasters selling their network to secular companies and rethinking the nature of their ministries, reports Charisma magazine (June).
The Christian broadcasters presence on prime-time TV is decreasing because of a growing number of sellouts to secular networks. Pat Robertson’s Christian Broadcasting Network (renamed the Family Channel in 1990) was sold to media tycoon Rupert Murdoch last year. With the sale, Robertson’s flagship program, The 700 Club, was moved to an obscure time slot, reports J. Lee Grady. Since 1994, Lowell Paxson, founder of the Home Shopping Network, has been “gobbling up Christian stations” in order to build Pax Net, a family entertainment network based on reruns of such shows as Touched by an Angel and Dr Quinn, Medicine Woman.
One of the largest Christian stations, WCFC TV-38 in Chicago, was sold to Paxson earlier this year for $120 million. Also involved in the shakeup is the advent of new technologies, such as digital television, forcing both secular and religious broadcasters to acquire new avenues for distribution. Some observers fear that religious broadcasters will react too slowly to such new technologies as the Internet in the same way they did when television emerged in the 1940s.
There is the concern that even such remaining powerhouses as the Trinity Broadcasting Network — with 381 stations in 66 countries — are being sidelined into a Christian ghetto and preaching to the evangelical choir rather than “invading secular culture,” Grady adds. The dominant language on the popular Christian shows is “Christianese”; the subject matter isn’t aimed at the unchurched. It may take a “new wave of creative Christians” who may be currently working at Disney, Fox, or Warner Bros. who will “take the gospel mainstream.”
Things are not much better for mainline, ecumenical television broadcasting. The National Catholic Reporter (May 8) notes that while the ecumenical Odyssey channel is celebrating its 10th anniversary, it is finding increased competition and is “just getting by,” says its interim president Fr.. Bob Bonnot. The network, which is owned and operated by a consortium of 65 different faith traditions, is in the black and is reported to be gaining viewers — it added 400,000 viewers in the first quarter of 1998.
But to compete with the new cable ventures that have “broken out quickly” in recent months, Odyssey will need fresh programming. Part of the problem is Odyssey’s emphasis on being non-offensive — because of its inter-faith approach. Patt Shea of Catholics in the Media, says the network may “need to do something controversial.”
(Charisma, 600 Rhinehart Rd., Lake Mary, FL 32746; National Catholic Reporter, P.O. Box 419281, Kansas City, MO 64141)