Christian Media

Note to Christian Media: Get Real

The day after the Oscars a few years ago, Los Angeles Times columnist Patrick Goldstein wrote a searing column in the Times about the need for the Oscar telecast to get a reality check. He wrote that it’s now painfully obvious that the Oscars need a face-lift. Ratings are down dramatically, and younger viewers are leaving in droves – 25% down from last year. But as I read his post, I couldn’t help think of comparing his criticism to religious media, which needs to wake up from a similar dream. The truth is, many of Goldstein’s complaints about the Oscars really parallel religious media.
For instance:

• As I said before, it’s losing young people in droves.

• It’s a holdover from the age of “appointment television.” Does anyone watch TV live anymore? I pretty much watch TV based on my TIVO. On a massive scale, the only thing people still see regularly on schedule is the Super Bowl, because it’s a live, competitive event, it showcases state of the art graphics and production values, and with the halftime show, boasts a show within a show – not to mention the commercials (which brings a pretty massive audience just for that). Yes, there are still folks without digital media recorders who watch it live, but if you want to reach younger viewers, “time shifting” is the new theme.

• Something that I’ve been preaching for years is length. The Oscar telecast is a 3 hour show. In religious media, with a sermon based program, I doubt many watch for more than 15 minutes. Remember, no one watches TV anymore. Yes, they might say they are, but in truth, they have the set turned on while they are eating dinner, getting dressed, or answering email. If the success of your program is based on them getting intensively involved, forget it.

• Goldstein makes the point that the Oscars should be streamed online. The MTV awards does a live streaming event, with multiple hosts and backstage views to give online fans a glimpse of the behind the scenes action. It opens up the program and gives online viewers something different than what’s happening on TV.

• He also says to cut the show length by doing more technical awards in the afternoon at a different ceremony. They do that now, but only on a limited basis. The major audience wants to just see the stars anyway, so shifting more awards to the afternoon will help keep the event moving.

• A more casual atmosphere is needed. I’ve noted before that when the 9/11 Committee in NYC had their anniversary event a few years ago, it was decided that there wouldn’t be a formal speaker. The thought was that today’s culture has grown so casual, the presence of a formal speech seems inauthentic and lacks feeling or emotion. Right or wrong, it’s worth noting.

• Today’s audience loves being inside the bubble. Want great examples? Watch ESPN or Fox Sports. Those guys put a mike on coaches and cameras in the locker room, and let us eavesdrop. Some of the most exciting stuff on TV these days is done by the sports guys. Check them out and see how you could adapt some of those ideas to your program concept.

Read the article by Goldstein in the Times. He’s got a great point, and it’s worth comparing to what we see on religious radio and TV. As he says about the Oscars, the camera placement and program structure hasn’t changed much since the Carol Burnett Show – except Carol Burnett was actually funny. And like Goldstein points out about the Oscars, religious media doesn’t need a little Botox, it needs serious plastic surgery.

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  1. The massive cultural shift is reaching critical mass right on schedule in 2008, exactly 40 years after the landmark year of 1968, which the History Channel claims was "The Year that Everything Changed ". The things that worked even ten years ago no longer seem to get traction. Just ask Hillary.

    Goldstein says it well. The time has come. People who don't like change are going to like irrelevance even less.

    Religious media rarely has been a leader in riding the leading edge of change with perhaps the Oral Roberts prime-time variety-type specials of the 70's being a notable exception. There are a few flickers out there, but most of what you see today is essentially what religious television looked like in the 90's. And even the 80's.

    This weekend I saw a ministry show in which they rebroadcast one of their programs from about 15 years ago. Except for everyone looking younger, it was pretty much the same program as their current shows.

    I think first of all ministries need to abandon the fixation with the daily or weekly broadcast and think a bit broader and realize the key is building strategic digital assets. The broadcast is merely one of those digital assets. They must assess what their strategy would be if they didn't have to create a broadcast asset that is 28:30 in length. Is the message to the local congregation always relevant for the viewers out there who may consume the video via television (broadcast schedule, on-demand, or Tivo), podcast, internet or a mobile device? Is streaming the broadcast the best use of the Internet? It seems to me that many are getting excited about HD instead of focusing more on changing content and creative presentation. HD is just technology.

    What's needed is fundamental strategic marketing, but yet many businesses and ministries don't seem to change unless they have to. And then it may be too late.

    What is the purpose of your media outreach? What is your market? Then what is your message, or better yet, what does the message need to be to be relevant to your target market? And then, and only then, what media should we use?

    I realize some will have theological quibbles with a market driven approach to media outreach. But honestly, is your program based upon what the viewer needs, or is it based upon what you want to say? The Oscars are still basing their program on what the Academy and its long-in-the-tooth leadership want the program to be. Goldstein is simply suggesting they listen to the market and humbly follow.

    The issue for religious broadcasters is not just media fragmentation. It's content. If you create relevant and compelling content there are more cost effective ways than ever to get it in front of viewers. But if your goal is simply to have a 28:30 broadcast to showcase what you have to say, well…

  2. Hi Phil
    This is a very true and interesting post and one that I find most of Christian Media totally oblivious too. I wrote a similar article on my blog a while ago (Graeme’s TV Production Blog – snappy name eh?) – it’s the bottom on your Blog Roll – asking very similar questions. One thing you don’t talk about though which for those of us in Christian Media is critical is given things are changing and people’s viewing habits are not the same and never will be again – how do we fund what we want to do?

    I think there is a major shift that has to take place in our thinking here, as our models are – for broadcasters – sponsored airtime – BUT soon people will watch what they want when they want so who is going to pay to have programmes aired – OR donor driven – but the audience is fragmenting and I can’t see this being sustainable long term. We have to think differently here and come up with a new model as well – maybe subscription based or (horror) advertising based etc. but the need is there.

    The people who are in possibly the best position are those who have a Church model – i.e. their media outlet is an expression of a local church – they have the relatively secure budget of tithes and offerings etc. for broadcasters and para church ministries this is not the case and if we don’t tackle this one many won’t survive.

    The great thing about it however is that good content that appeals to viewers is the thing that is likely to become more prevalent from the Christian Media scene – the whole “Vanity Publishing” aspect – i.e. I have a programme and its all about me me me me me me – is likely to disappear as there will be no audience for it!!

    Can’t happen quick enough.


  3. Let me take a contrary view here: the Academy is not stupid.  they know they would get better ratings by just showing best actors and best picture with a 30 minute show.  But that is not what the Academy is about.  it celebrates and honors all of the artists that make the films.  the ratings will continue to fall.  but many folks do what Patrick Goldstein did -TIVO the whole show and pick what they want.


    the connection to the church i think is an interesting one, and i don't disagree with all the points Phil makes.  but some of those points are like polishing a turd.  A 15minute version of 90 minute sermon is just as uninteresting.  and sermons on  Christian TV are cheap programming, or like talk shows on Christian TV.  does anyone TIVO Christian TV and speed to the best parts?

  4. This hits several buttons for me.

    On the one hand, I think there's a lot to be said in the context of Christian Ministry Media extending from a local Church for a lot of reasons, but I realize that when revenue sources other than those generated directly related to the media itself are the foundation, there seems to be the problem of well meaning ministries focusing on the content of their message and failing to bring the media quality itself up to the high standards that today's discerning audience needs in order to break through the noise out there.

    On the other hand, those media organizations that succeed by the excellence of their media presentation but who lack the accountibility and balance of an organization lending context to their efforts, it can degenerate into the media success and needs fueling the content and efforts and over time hit a cycle where the media exists to serve itself and maintain.

    I realize this is just one segment of religious broadcasting but I think it demonstrates how agility and responsiveness is lost when it becomes a risk to tinker with what supposedly is "working" (at least from the viewpoint of sustaining revenue.)

  5. You make some interesting points Phil.  I agree with most of them.  From my point of view, I think the future of media is in giving people what they want when they want it. 

    Any media that does that more effectively will supersede the previous media.

    Has anybody actually watched a "news show" from beginning to end recently?  I bet not.  You get your news of the internet, your way all the way.  In that fashion you learn what you want/need to know, and avoid the tedium of wading through what you do not. 

    So it is with everything else these days.  This isn't a dysfunctional trend, it doesn't mean we're all ADD.  We are just processing information more effectively, because we're being offered media that delivers it more efficiently.  This is not a bad thing.

    Time to ebrace the change instead of complaining about it. 

  6. My only memories of the Oscars are those inspiring stories of perserverance and triumph, e.g. Cuba Gooding Jnr, Roberto Benigni (Life is Beautiful) and Geoffrey Rush (Shine). Perhaps this is because their stories seem more "real" to me than the botox, limosines and silicone enhancements.It would be wonderful if the Academy could produce a 5 minute docco on each nominee that could be accessed online in the weeks before the event. i would feel a greater connection to the nominees and actually follow their careers more closely.

  7. "does anyone TIVO Christian TV and speed to the best parts?"

    Nope, I don't.  I don't watch 'em front to back either.  This morning three religious shows with three very different styles aired simultaneously.  I flicked through them each, noting style and basic content.  As always, I was impressed by Joyce Meyers' warm connection with her audience,  and reminded that I'm fond of Arnold Murray in spite of his frequent flights from sound doctrine.  Creflo Dollar's popularity continues to boggle my simple mind.   Then I turned off the tube and got on with my day.  There's too much marsh mallow fluff and toxic sludge in these shows, and they seem to last for…ev…er…  Who's got time for that in a normal morning routine?

    These shows are simply not an effective way to get information, be entertained or worship.  What's left?  Why are they on the air?  Will they remain after another 10 years? 


  8. Format, stylizing and content may be the buzzwords for broadcast, but the essential truth is that it's about stories that connect.

    Jesus only did His public teaching (outside of the temple or in private with His disciples) via parables. In other words, a story that illustrates a truth and brings home a reality that can readily be applied to our lives.

    Film and television are testaments to the power of enduring story lines. Why is it that in world where we aren't limited to sound bytes but instead kilo bytes, that Christian media tends to ignore the story and focus on the story teller? I'm all for compelling story tellers, but most of today's sermons are still three point outlines littered with unconnected stories instead of a seamless story that speaks the truth of God in a context, format and style that uses the tools of today.

    If your church has a great ministry to single mothers, produce videos that show how their needs were met and their lives impacted by the Church (people) serving locally. if your church has a venue that can be used by local artists for free, help them get noticed on You Tube. If your church has phenomenal community service opportunities, highlight the people who are carving out time from their own lives to help others.

    Maybe it's the Bible colleges or Seminaries that fail to teach how to teach like Jesus taught, or perhaps it's the lack of preparation most pastors fail to commit to long lead-time sermon prep for leveraging compelling media, music and marketing in today's context. Honestly, I don't know. But I have a sneaking suspicion that an honest examination of how we "do church" would reveal more of the same instead of more of a change.

    My 3 cents (inflation due to rising oil prices),


  9. 'Couple of things:

    I worked for a number of years for a media ministry and the fact remains that you all do not represent their target or core audience. The average age of the viewers (and listeners) of Christian tv and radio programming is in the neighborhood of 60 years old. They aren't early adopters (likely don't have Tivo). And guess what, they're the ones making the donations to support these programs. If the model were to instantly change to your suggestions, the revenue streams into these ministries would dry up abruptly. The programming is still what it is because there's still an audience for it. The biggest part of the problem for the future of Christian programming is a business model that can support the kinds of changes you're suggesting. Right now there simply isn't one. Time and again ministries have gone after a younger demographic only to find that they can't fiscally support programming for that demo because they won't support the programs with contributions.

  10. Exactly right.  HOWEVER – the point is not to make the change "abruptly" but to see the future and start planning for it.  You're right the money will dry up if we make the change immediately, but it will also dry up if we're not ready for the change when it comes…  Jesus scolded religious leaders because they didn't recognize the "signs of the times…"  We need to start looking as well.

  11. Just looking at a file report for a television preacher who is in his 40s.  The largest group of supporters are 42-59.  Almost none 60+.

    You need to validate the age of the file for your organization before you make any assumptions…and it can be done for only a few hundred dollars.

  12. Mary,


    The ministry I was associated with spent a great deal of effort on research and had data that clearly showed a median viewer/listener was a 57 year old female.  The donor pool skewed older than that.  Coupled with ongoing overall television data that shows the under 35 demos are falling in television consumption, and overall charitable contribution trends skewing highly to the over 50 crowd, I feel very comfortable with the assertion I previously made.


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