How to be a Break-Out Success on Religious TV

OK – I’m actually going to be serious here. No jokes about bad hair, polyester suits, gold furniture, or prayer cloths. In an ocean of competition on a typical religious channel, how do you cut through the clutter and get the audience’s attention? Better yet, how do you get them to respond? I don’t have all the answers, and I’d love for you to respond, but here’s my two cents. And by the way, let’s take it for granted that you have an actual spiritual call to do this, so don’t get mad that my list isn’t more spiritual. I’m making the assumption that if you’re not spiritually mature enough and called to do this, you shouldn’t even be reading this list.

1) The Message Matters. The truth is, 90% of TV preachers are teaching a message few even care about. You’re either answering questions no one is asking, or you’re not scratching where the culture itches. You may not like Joel Osteen, but his message of hope and encouragement touches a cord in millions of people. Likewise, Joyce Meyer’s message of how God works in practical, everyday ways connects with just as many. It’s not about tickling their ears, it’s about connecting – sharing a message that strikes a cord and resonates with people. In their day, Billy Graham had it, Oral Roberts had it, Bishop Fulton Sheen had it, and others had it. The traditional media world is about what they think the audience wants to watch. The new media world is about what the audience wants. Learn something from that. It doesn’t mean you pander, it means you listen.

2) What makes you different? In the world of branding, one of our key questions is “What makes you different?” Once again, 90% of preachers do very little that makes them distinctive, and in a media-driven culture, people need that help. In a world with thousands of choices, it’s the different choices that stand out. Be the nail that sticks out of the porch. Be the blade of grass that stands above the others. Be different. That permeates everything you do – look different, have a different message, present it differently, think differently, create a different program, and more. Essentially, that’s what branding is all about. Why should I watch your program? To justify my attention, you’ve got to be different from all the others out there. We live in a culture where we don’t have much time, and we have lots of choices. Make it simple for me.

3) Give me a hook. Why should I respond to you or your message? What’s in it that makes me want more? Why should I care? There are lots of preachers out there – and some are preaching good messages, but few give me a reason to watch more. The old radio and TV serials invented the “cliffhanger” – leaving the audience in suspense demanding to know what happens in the next episode. What are you doing that makes the audience want to come back next week? Creativity, cool graphics, and hip clothes, are all good, but they won’t matter if you’re not sharing a message that hooks the viewer. Don’t forget that this is the key to response. If you don’t give them a reason to respond, they won’t.

4) Unify your branding. The vast majority of TV ministries have no brand at all, much less know how to unify it. Unifying your brand means that every expression of your brand story needs to be expressed throughout everything you do. From postcards, to the website, set design, architecture, social media, look and feel of the TV program, and more, it all needs to tell the visual story of who you are. Today, if I spread out the brochures, books, tapes, websites, and more from a typical TV ministry, it would look like they each came from a different organization. Therefore, they all tell different stories. But when you see anything from Starbucks, Apple, or Nike – it all has a similar visual expression of their brand. Look at everything you do and make sure the brand story of you and/or your ministry is told through it all. It doesn’t have to necessarily look the same, but it needs to tell the same story.

5) Raise the bar. By now, most TV preachers reading this will say, “So what? I do all that already.” Maybe, but I doubt it. But even if you are, your standards are probably way too low. You need to realize the level of competition out there. In 1980, just about anybody could succeed on religious TV. Even Ernest Angley had an audience. But today, it’s the Olympics on steroids when it comes to finding an audience. It’s a tough world out there, so you need to raise the bar in the level of content, differentiation, branding, and the reason they should respond. Make it better. Go deeper.

Any other serious suggestions for people launching a media ministry?  

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

  • A few thoughts –

    1. Know what you are trying to accomplish. Are you trying to build a media ministry to develop a significant audience and donor base, or are you using media as purely a missions outreach with no expectation of any return. Are you trying to grow your local or regional church? It changes the strategy.

    2. Speaking of strategy, be strategic. You are talking about communicating here, so it is important to know what your calling is, what you are trying to say, whom you are trying to reach, and how you will measure success. The measuring stick can be objective, or subjective. But it should be defined well so your whole team can make decisions that move the media outreach toward the desired goals.

    3. Consider outsourcing. It’s hard to hire all the skill sets needed for a successful media outreach when you are in early stages of development. Look for people with experience who talk straight and don’t flatter you.

    4. Produce quality content. Raise the money you need to produce a show that looks like it belongs on a national network. Audiences are very visually discriminating. They size up the look of a show well before they will ever listen to your message. The message needs to be gripping, but the packaging has to attract and not repel viewers.

    5. Do you want to work hard? The people who succeed in communications work hard at it. They solicit input and criticism. They are diligent and faithful over many years with the drive to foster continuous improvement.

    • Excellent advice Chris. it’s a good reminder that if it was easy, anybody could do it!

  • joesindorf

    Great post again, Phil. It’s interesting to me how many of the major ministries with a television presence have hired you as a consultant, and how few of them really went all-in with your excellent advice. I’ve been in the meetings and could tell some stories… but not in this venue!

    Here’s the problem… it’s in your title: “How to be a Break-Out Success on Religious TV” the problem is in the word “success” — how do the vast majority of television ministries define success on TV? One word: response. Did that “show” make the phone ring? How many trays of mail did we get in?

    Branding, quality etc. are meaningless if they do not generate response (according to the majority of television ministries that I’ve observed). I have seen beautiful spots and programs be trashed, pulled off the air, because they didn’t perform as well as last year’s in-your-face informercial did.

    So, with all due respect (and I do highly respect you and your expertise) most TV ministries would rather read a blog post with these five main points:
    1) how to disquise commercial content as program content
    2) how to write a CTA (call to action) that is guaranteed to bring in response
    3) how to get more Facebook likes and shares than your competition
    4) how to create alliterations and catch phrases that your audience will tweet immediately
    5) how to find the next must-have “product” with the least cost of goods and highest perceived value.

    Now that’s a post that will get shared… but those are shares you don’t really want.

    • Can’t argue with that perspective Joe. While balancing message with response is a difficult challenge, I think you’d agree that it can be done. (But it’s not easy… :-)

      • joesindorf

        I’m not promoting that perspective… it’s simply my observation over many years in this jungle. You’re right, finding a balance is the goal… many will never want to.

  • Truett

    #6. Have at least six months to one year of production and airtime costs already in the bank before you start on this journey. If you want to stand out at all, your program is going to have to have great production value regardless of the content. Your message may be world changing but no one is going to watch or listen to you if you are sitting behind a desk two feet from a boring wall with a plant next to you. The cost to shoot, edit and produce a quality program can be daunting but it is what it is. Airtime is not getting cheaper either and if you want to get your message out you are going to want to be on a decent network at a time when people are tuning in. Save your money (a lot of it) before making the leap into TV.

    • Ejody

      And there should always be some sort of lamp in the background. In addition to the plant, of course.

      • Truett

        of course

  • Ejody

    And here’s a thought: when you have a plumbing problem, you hire a professional plumber, even though many in your church own a wrench. When you have an electrical problem, you hire a professional electrician, even though many in your church own a screwdriver and wire cutters. When you need the roof worked on, you hire a professional roofer, though many in your church own a hammer.

    When you need to create a television program, who will you hire? Many in your church own cameras…

  • Fredrick Weiss

    Oh, boy, Phil, I would love to comment on this freely, but it wouldn’t end well, I’m afraid, and I respect you too much for invading your space, so I’ll play it safe. But I appreciate that you keep putting such topics out there that make people stop and think.
    I will just say this, I agree with point #1, but where everything else crumbles (making points 2-4 irrelevant, if not in place) is if the person sharing his or her message isn’t authentic and legitimate (Malcolm Gladwell gave a good talk on that at Q). Putting on a good show and using a formula to “achieve success” by any means necessary will never fly too long, people don’t respond to “fake it till you make it”. There’s a truly painful example of a recent network reality show that trailed well-known young pastors. Just be who God made and called you to be and present your unique perspective, that’s what makes those people you’ve mentioned by name stand out and attractive. And it doesn’t matter if I agree with all of them or not, fact is, I know (or at least think I do) what they’re about, and that’s what draws you in. Same applies to podcasts. Be excellent and truthful, always, else you’re just a two-bit car salesman dressed up in your own glory who brings (that other) Genesis to mind… http://tinyurl.com/hpc7hmp
    From a budgetary standpoint, it’s pretty easy and affordable to create a strong platform for broadcast online, nowadays you don’t need to be on a network anymore. Plus you have complete creative control over every branding aspect of your website. And strong production talent can be found everywhere these days, for very reasonable rates, especially since it’s all non-union.
    Ok, I’ll shut up now, cause all the other stuff is itching to come out.

    • Please Fredrick – feel free to let it all out! :-)

      • Fredrick Weiss

        Tempting, but trust me on this one… Just ask our mutual friend Ralph W., he knows how opinionated I can get. Us Jews never run outta arguments… Maybe one day, you and I, over a drink on the terrace at the Chateau.

  • Vic Bolton

    Phil – great post, but you danced around the big elephant in the corner dropping coconuts on the carpet. I have heard you say this to folks in meetings, and have done so myself many times, often at my own peril…lol

    Get yourself out of the way! Too many ministry environments are so personality-driven that the only opinion that has value is the founder’s or the senior pastor’s. Everything you and your friends are saying here has been shared with the vast majority of ministries that are large enough to be on TV…truth is, it is very common for people to pay you to give them advice they will not follow. It’s the classic marketing conundrum – do you create a great widget and figure out how to get people to buy it, or do you listen to your customers and endeavor to give them what they need? To do the latter, which is typically the wiser choice, requires that you solicit uncomfortable input from perspectives that differ from yours, and that you give serious weight to that information in your decision-making. Seems simple, but we all know common sense is not common…

  • Everything you say in this article Phil is true. The comments from this article are also eye opening as well with many great points being made. Joel Osteen and Joyce Meyer reach a mainstream audience which is the major target. We have plenty who preach to the choir. TBN is changing by getting rid of the old guard of guests and adding all the new hip preachers to capture the new generation of donations that are key to their success. Daystar is inviting those discarded by TBN because they still have money to spend and an audience to reach. There is a major shift going on. Reality TV is taking a strong look at the new hip ministers as long as they don’t touch the hot topics filling up mainstream media. One thing for sure, there are plenty of outlets to be different, but let’s continue to pray that the message of the Gospel will reach those who continue to have their head down looking at their smartphones or living on the streets.

  • Avoid pride and self-promotion by hiding behind the cross and exalting the living, resurrected Jesus. Keep your name and your glory out of the program and let it be all about Jesus.

  • Crash Davis

    Good stuff. Vic’s comment struck a chord: “truth is, it is very common for people to pay you (Phil) to give them advice they will not follow.” He’s right.

    Years ago I worked as a senior producer for a very large church with a worldwide TV ministry (100+ countries). You were invited to speak @ a Business lunch attended by virtually all of the church leaders. Your advice and comments to the group that morning were spot on. You cast vision. I remember the pastor getting up after you finished and saying how motivated he was by your ideas. In the back of my mind I internally thought, “Great stuff. The church leadership will never let it happen.” And? Your advise went nowhere. The leaders made sure any of your creative suggestions were strangled in the crib. Why? They didn’t know how to pursue a goal to brand, create dynamic content, be unique. Their only vision was like the disciples: Can I sit next to Jesus in Heaven? Worse? The pastor didn’t care, and boasted that he never even watched his own tv program. A program where $3 million of church money was spent per year on airtime. Sad. And frustrating. To the leaders, all that mattered was their pastor’s Sunday message and the dvd/book offers. 10 years later? The program has not changed…one bit. They fired or let go all of the “expensive” professionals. There’s more. But most people reading this get the idea.

    Why do I bring up this story? First, because it’s true of so many churches. Pastor’s message. Book & DVD offers. Visit our website. Tease the next episode. That’s it. Second? Because your advice (any of the sage advice from those who have lived in the trenches of Christian TV) is like the Parable of the Sower: Rocky ground. Trampled by the Sower. Choked by the weeds & thorns. Good soil.

    There’s not enough good soil out there in the Religious TV world right now. That’s where a big change needs to happen if ministries are going to be creative, stand out, convince viewers to watch (get involved).

    Good soil starts with a leader who’s willing to cast vision. Or? Listen & trust those who will help him/her cast vision.

    • philcooke

      Excellent thoughts. Really good advice and worth following. Thanks for posting!

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