Seven years into the millenium, what changes are happening in religious media? During a company strategy session recently, I had a fascinating conversation with Matthew Phillips, COO and Director of Digital Media at Cooke Media Group. We discussed the state of religious media and how far we’ve come since the new millennium:
Matthew Phillips: As a producer and director, why do you find it so easy to move back and forth between the secular media and the Christian media?
Phil Cooke: Probably because I try not to separate the two. Certainly there’s a difference between regular network television and Christian programming, but the fact is, the best programs can both entertain and deliver a message. Much of secular television entertains very well, but leaves the audience empty. On the other hand, much of Christian television delivers a powerful message, but packages it in a horribly boring program. What I want to do is combine the best of both – let’s produce programming that’s innovative and creative, and yet still brings a message of hope.
What’s the beef with entertainment? I’m really tired of pompous pastors and ministry leaders who tell me, “I don’t produce shows – I produce programs.” Give me a break. Jesus was the most captivating and compelling speaker of this time. Most of our religious programming could stand to be a little more interesting and entertaining. No one ever told me Christian TV was supposed to be agonizing, but sadly, most of it is.
There’s also the idea that we should have explicitly religious programming, and I’m cool with that. Just as there are fishing shows, sports programming, or food networks, it’s perfectly acceptable and desirable to have religious networks that focus exclusively on that type of programming. After all, people of faith want to see programs devoted to that subject, and I think that’s great. However – don’t ever fall for the myth that exclusively religious programming is actually impacting the greater culture in any significant way.
MP: Why isn’t it?
PC: A couple of reasons. Christian television was founded by preachers. Men of God who understood the need to communicate through television, but their calling was to preach, so that’s exactly what they did. And that legacy still exists. Even today, most Christian programs are produced by pastors or evangelists, and I would bet that even most Christian TV station managers come from ministry backgrounds. There’s nothing wrong with that, and I am very grateful to those men and women who pioneered Christian media. But now, we need to broaden the scope of our programming if we’re going to take Christian media to the next level.
The second reason is financing. We’ll never raise enough money to produce movies and serious documentaries by asking for funds over the air. That’s another reason why most Christian programs are sermons and interviews – programs that are relatively inexpensive to produce. So the bottom line is, we really won’t change Christian television until we begin to change the way programs are financed. One of the keys is what you’re doing right now with some of our clients and their web presence.
MP: The future is digital, and most religious organizations have a pretty poor web presence out there. Considering the opportunities of blogging, online communities, targeted advertising, and other techniques, the web is a pretty exciting place to be right now.
PC: Who’s doing it right?
MP: The easiest answer to that one is to check the blog roll on the philcooke.com website, and you’ll see some of the sites and blogs that we read regularly. Speaking of digital media, the Reach Conference (reachconference.org) is coming up in Orlando, and you’re hosting it with film producer Ralph Winter, pastor and futurist Erwin McManus, and professor Leonard Sweet. This very weekend you’ll be speaking at the Wilberforce Forum with Chuck Colson in Washington DC. When you speak at colleges, universities, and media conferences across the country, what else do you see happening in Christian media?
PC: There is a new wave of young people that are being called into Christian media and that really excites me. They don’t have any of the preconceptions, frustrations, or limitations about what we can and can’t do in the media. All they want to do is make a difference, and they’re doing it. These young, creative people are our greatest asset, and I would encourage every media professional to welcome them into their company or ministry and give them enough leash to experiment and try some new approaches. It may be painful at first, but believe me, it will make a dramatic difference in the long run.
MP: Absolutely. Right now is a critical time for Christians in the media. We desperately need to move to the next level if we’re going to make an impact on our culture. The only way to do that is to expand our horizons and be open to all the possibilities out there.