Christian Media

The Case for Cultural Sensitivity

During the last week, I’ve been seeing more and more on the trials and travails of media companies moving into other cultures. The NBC series “Law and Order” has decided to stop showing subtitled versions of the American show in countries like France, and start creating an entirely French version with local actors. Why?

Because they see the power in identifying completely with the local culture. In the same way, Apple Computer has discovered that their famous “PC vs. Mac” ads don’t work so well in other countries. The sense of humor doesn’t necessarily translate. Plenty of others are doing the same thing. That’s why MTV has localized versions. What does this mean for faith based producers?

It means that programming that’s created for American audiences doesn’t necessarily work in Japan, Israel, or South Africa. It means that the Christian “lingo” American Christians use won’t be understandable to a German or Dutch viewer. It means that jokes that American’s laugh at won’t make any sense to a viewer in Brazil or Korea. A few years ago, while teaching in Moscow, I had the opportunity to watch American religious programming on an Eastern European channel and discovered to my dismay that 99% of the ministries on the network were broadcasting the exact same program in Europe and Russia they were broadcasting in Toledo or Milwaukee. In spite of the radically different culture I was seeing just outside the window.

In fact, in my more than 3 decades of producing for faith based organizations, I have to admit that the Billy Graham Association has been the only ministry that’s mandated that we create culturally sensitive versions of their television program. In fact, they asked us to create separate versions based on people and language groups in specific parts of the world. As such, we used local musicians and singers, did interviews with local Christians, and built a virtually localized program around Billy’s messages.

As you move into international programming, consider how a Japanese, Russian, or African viewer will respond to your program. Consider the culture and how difficult it might be for them to relate to your wardrobe, set design, program style, and even jokes. The easy way out is to simply broadcast your program everywhere. But consider the “effective way out” and see what could happen if you put some thought and effort into cultural sensitivity.

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  1. Here in the UK, where our satellite receives a dozen Christian networks, only a few are home grown– namely Revelation TV, UCB and God tv. But with the exception of Revelation TV, most just air U.S. preachers and ministries.

    Phil, you mentioned Billy Graham’s ministry, but CBN has done well in having an international branch which creates programming that is culturally relevant– they work with producers and creatives that are within the countries they are wanting to reach.

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