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. "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? 


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