Christian Media

Why TV Ministries Still Matter

I may be one of Christian TV’s loudest critics, but one of the most disturbing trends in the ministry world is the disappointing lack of interest in using TV as a tool for impacting today’s culture with the message of Christianity. Back in the seventies and eighties in particular, men like Billy Graham, Oral Roberts, Rex Humbard, and others reached vast audiences through television. In spite of some later embarrassments, in many ways those years were considered a “golden era” in Christian broadcasting, and gave birth to numerous global television networks.

But a number of high profile sex and financial scandals helped turn a younger generation of pastors and leaders against the medium – and far too many cheesy, corny, and low budget programs didn’t help. For many church leaders today, much of what they see on Christian television is frankly an embarrassment.  If that’s what TV ministry is, they understandably want no part of it. As a result, many of these pastors have turned to the Internet and mobile apps as evangelistic and discipleship tools – and aren’t remotely interested in broadcast TV.

But in spite of the phenomenal growth of the Internet and mobile devices, I still believe television will continue to be an incredibly important medium for the Church. After all, over the last century, radio never displaced movies, and TV never displaced radio. Everything finds it’s level in the media universe. So while the number of households watching traditional TV fell by about 1.2 million last year, television is still the last truly “mass” medium.

The recent and growing demand for TV commercial spots just confirms that statement. After fears of the web stealing ad revenue, TV ad dollars are rising, and that’s why the average cost of a network TV spot has grown 17% during the last TV season. Major advertisers are still looking for the largest possible audience, and this has enormous implications for ministry. The truth is, while there are many people unplugging from traditional TV and gravitating to the web, two things are important to remember:

1. Great numbers of those people are simply viewing popular TV programs on their laptop. They may not be using a traditional TV set, but they’re still watching “American Idol,” “Glee,” or the NBA playoffs. I sat on a plane recently next to a woman watching a Joyce Meyer program on her iPad. I’d seen the same message from Joyce a few weeks earlier on TV. While short films on websites like YouTube are extremely popular, a vast and significant audience is simply trading hardware – not looking for different content.

2. While more and more people are on Facebook, blogs, and various websites, it’s a scattered and splintered audience. There are more than 600 million Facebook members worldwide, but they’re not viewing the same content. It’s essentially millions of people interacting with millions of individual – and different – friends.

TV has become the last great American campfire.  That’s why to reach a concentrated, mass audience, television is still the medium of choice. Even though local satellite and cable systems have many channels, the most popular by far number only a handful. As a result, TV has become the last great American campfire. One place where an entire nation – and indeed the world – is focused on virtually the same information and entertainment.

So what does that mean for ministry? It means TV isn’t dead – either as an entertainment medium or evangelistic tool. If the Church is going to impact the larger culture, then television should be a priority. Obviously, a total evangelistic, advertising, or marketing campaign needs to embrace multiple platforms, but to reach the largest single segment of people, don’t leave TV out of your plans.

But remember the lessons from the past. More poorly produced preaching programs or cheap interview shows will only make your message more and more irrelevant. Changing today’s culture isn’t just about getting on the right platforms – it’s about original ideas that capture people’s attention.

That’s enough writing. I need to go check tonight’s TV schedule…

BTW – do you agree?  Do you think TV has untapped potential for sharing our faith with the culture, or have TV evangelists of the past made that influence impossible?

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  1. Dear Phil,
    you noted that TV is dominated by a number of highly popular channels. Yes, this happens all over. Thus smaller channels face huge challenges. The special reports by “The Economist” entitled “Television: Changing the channel” provide insight into the interaction of specific TV channels with other channels and other types of media (Budd, 2010, April 29).
    The overall media system of various TV channels is critically dependent on the number of viewers. When the number of viewers increases, more revenue can be obtained by the channel through advertising and subscription, and theses additional funds are able to increase the quality and interest generated by a TV channel, which in turn increases the TV viewers.
    When the same programme is shown on additional gadgets, the number of viewers on the popular channels actually become increased, whereas for less popular channels the number of viewers decreases. Sounds strange, yet the “The Economist” special report articles describes how the viewership of highly popular channels grows as the shows become available on multiple platforms. The opposite occurs for less popular TV channels.
    As you say, TV is still the dominant mass media, yet channels with Christian content, which have smaller numbers of viewers, need to go out of their way to integrate alternative video platforms appropriately to build on their TV viewer numbers. Just adding other video platforms can easily result in a drop of TV viewers number when done inappropriately.

    Budd, J. (2010, April 29). Television: Changing the channel. The Economist. Retrieved from

  2. I really do believe TV has untapped potential for sharing our faith with the culture, in spite of the history of Christian programming. However, for that potential to be realized and utilized to the fullest extent, history would need to stop repeating itself in the present tense.
    I think we’ve mildly succeeded in Christian TV post the “golden era” you spoke of Phil. There is so much more we could be accomplishing with this incredible evangelistic tool.

  3. #1

    The typical TV model for Christian programming is that you buy spots on Christian networks that usually don’t have a high standard in program quality and will take any half decent and many times, shoddily produced programs just to pay the bills.

    This is backwards to secular model, which actually works in terms of being profitable if the content draws viewers and produces advertising $$$.
    #2The Christian content producers, which are usually an in-house team usually don’t have the expertise in producing good programming. I don’t know how many churches I’ve observed that don’t have a clear goal of what results they are after. Following up with their analytics to effectively measure results is almost an after thought.
    Using MIND CONTROL to reach the masses.

    If we could only program people through the technology of television, right? (Joke)

    We’re in a renaissance with technology right now and the masses are eating it up. YouTube, Podcasts, Email, DVR’s, iPads, iPhones, Apple TV’s (Shameless Apple plug). People can access you anywhere!

    Because many people now have their media consumption divided between all of these outlets.
    TV is becoming less crowded for the Christian content producer which is great news if reaching people through television is your plan.

    Unfortunately, many ministries( and businesses) jumped ship because Faceboook, Twitter, PODCATS, AND YOUTUBE are “Free”, so they thought.

    After the many hundreds and even thousands of hours posting and tweeting about what “they” are doing, the results have not been amazing and “Free” like they thought. Back to the drawing board…

    The bottom line is that when you are entering another field, like Television, social media advertising, Podcasts, Video Production, etc…, get some wisdom and counsel from people that are experienced in that particular field. Stick to what you’re good at and join forces with professionals in the space you’d like to enter. This is a very Biblical principle found in Romans 12:4-8 (Media Translation)

    For just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, so in Christ we, though many, form one body, and each member belongs to all the others. We have different gifts, according to the grace given to each of us. If your gift is Preaching, then Preach in accordance with your faith; if it is teaching, then teach; if it is advertising, then be effective; if it is Television Production, then be creative and reach people; if it is to connect with people through Podcasts, Youtube, emails and Social Media, do it and measure your results. Most of all, I urge you to get counsel from other gifts that can to help you.

  4. OK … you asked …

    You ask if TV evangelists of the past have made a great influence impossible. No, it’s not the TV evangelists who have made Christian TV in general a joke. It is the TV stations that have sprung up in the name of Christ.

    Admittedly, they probably had good motives when they started. But a public service like a TV station is not an easy thing to work – frankly, most people just cannot make a success out of it, Christian or secular.

    Thus in an effort to save face and perpetuate a mismanaged or ill-conceived business, they end up turning a good idea into a circus that shames the very God they wish to proclaim. 

    Ok think about it…  
    1. How many popular TV stations and networks would survive if they did not actively seek out new programming and improvementsthat viewers  responded well to? Zero. Yet so-called Christian stations leave boring and annoying program on their lineup – even in prime time – year after year simply because the content provider is paying for it. You cannot accept any excuse for a station having less than 1% market share of viewers when the over 90% of our country says they believe in God, and more than half claim to be Christians. 

    Solution: Demand more of the programmers. Test market potential programs before putting them on the air. Reevaluate each program every quarter to see if the quality remains high and content relevant.
    2. Do you enjoying being told every few minutes that you’re sitting on the couch watching a station that is doing what you as a Christian should be doing — sharing the gospel with the world? Yet, that is exactly what most so-called Christian stations are doing – telling people they’re spreading the gospel to the world, yet their primary audience is older and mostly female Christians.

    Solution: Be real and tell the truth — if your station programming is geared towards older Christian women and your demographics show that that’s who is watching – tell them that they’re supporting and the TV station that is preaching the gospel to over Christian women.

    3. What type of company can survive if it deliberately, repeatedly and consistently engages in competing head-to-head with its own customers?  Again, probably none. Yet that is what almost every so-called Christian station and network is doing now-a-days.  They are charging for the airtime to their programmers, and then squeeze in between the programs multiple appeals for the same money to do the same thing as what the programmers are doing . In addition, they put their own programs on the air at no charge to themselves to build up an audience that they can get even more money from. Part of the irony here is that the programmers are paying for the stations to do this horrible thing.

    Solution: each station or network needs to choose which of these two models they are going to use.
    1. Do not accept any money from the programmer, but demand a quality non-commercial product from the programmer to be on the air. In between those programs, raise the money that you need to operate the station and give a portion of that to the programmer to pay for his production costs. This could be from on-the-air appeals that promote those programmers, or it could be from businesses within the community that is supposed to be watching these programs-like every other station in the area is doing. Or …
    2. Again, demand a quality program, but allow the programmer to use the full time of the program (all but 1 minute per hour for station IDs & feature promos) to raise his own funds, or to sell the commercial time to people in the community, and do not take prime time for station talk/sing shows and promotional programming. Yes, have station programming but buy and pay for it the same way the others do — internal ads or appeals. 

    Until these areas are fixed, we’re fighting a losing battle.  I could go on and write the rest of the book, but then what would Phil do? 🙂

    1. I see Carlo already posted some of this as I wrote it too. We’ll leave it to someone else to talk about fitting the programming to the audience and programming flow, etc.

  5. I agree Phil, programming must be relevant and reach into the lives of everyday people, meeting their everyday needs. If your sermon won’t help you be a better person it probably won’t help anyone else either. TV is about story telling and entertainment. You must do a little of both to hold the audience even for a little while.

  6. I just read your blog on “Why TV Ministries Still Matter”. It was spot on. Some have made the comparison to DVD’s over taking VHS and digital downloads over taking CD’s to what they predict will happen when the internet takes over TV. I can see where they’re coming from, but I believe they are wrong.
    TV and the internet continue to merge. My AT&T U-verse is delivered to my TV via Cat. 5. I can use my iPhone and iPad to operate the receivers. Not to mention services like Netflix and Hulu Plus. There are also apps for most of the major TV networks, NBC, TBS, ABC and so on. You can watch your favorite network TV shows on demand on line and on your mobile device. TV as we know it will change. It already has, but it will not go the way of the horse and buggy. Content is still king. Story telling and high production value are close seconds. We all know there are issues with Christian TV. There has been since it’s inception. Let’s make good TV that happens to be Christian. Become relevant to the audience we are trying to reach, no, called to reach.

  7. In our household, and perhaps many other households like ours, the user behavior that has supported traditional Christian TV – networks, and cable/satellite distributors – has changed.

    We still consume Christian video content, but it is now mostly online and we are much more intentional about it.

    The Global TV Replacement Study finds about 70% of people are now engaging with video content outside of the traditional television set.

    The model of a limited number of Christian TV networks and content producers is breaking down. It will be replaced by the digital network with near limitless channel capacity. We will see the rise of new networks – content aggregators, churches, groups of churches and denominations – using video systems constructed for mass distribution to consumers everywhere. Digital video content production and distribution has become exceedingly efficient. Content creation will explode and be custom created for specific niche groups from church goers to unchurched people to international audiences.

    The potential for churches committed to video outreach is enormous.

  8. I agree that TV isn’t dead, but as others have said, the Christian TV market is upside down. And churches take money they could use to produce quality programming and use it to buy airtime.

    In my brief time as an indie Christian TV producer I found lots of channels and networks that would gladly take anything that wasn’t a traditional worship-turned-broadcast-program and air it for free. (Not every station or network, but more than you might think). I never paid a single dollar for airtime, but my series was broadcast around the world. Years later it is still on some stations.

    Add that to the fact that viewership for traditional worship styled services skews toward an older demographic. While other types of shows are reaching younger audiences, I have to wonder why churches are not taking their airtime budgets and using them to create quality programming that isn’t a traditional show?

    For instance, documentary viewership has been on the rise since 2015. Most churches are familiar with the basic testimony video with B-Roll. It’s a short step to move from those short videos to telling stories effectively through documentaries. Package those on a 28:30 format and place them on stations and networks that will take them for free.

    Then provide this same content to an aggregator, or deliver it your selves to multiple streaming platforms. Anyone that can meet the technical requirements can place video onto Amazon Prime through Amazon Video Direct and reach viewers in the US and UK. (That’s an audience of 26 million people in the US according to Reuters, and you can access them for free)

    Take the money for buying airtime, $36k-300k+ (in some markets), and used it to make good programming that appeals to younger audiences. Most of the churches I’ve worked with or talked with are not trying to drive donations through their local/regional broadcasts. They view the airtime purchase as a ministry expense. But they also want to reach more people.

    Change the programming to something that appeals to more people. Change the model to go everywhere they are, not just local stations.

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