Churches can harness the power of television with original content

Digital television and the Internet offer churches abundant ministry opportunities.

By Bob Higley

According to the United States Department of Labor the average time spent watching television each day by individuals is two and a half hours; yet, the amount of time devoted to religious activities is only seven minutes per day. On a weekly basis, this equates to 17.5 hours per person watching television and only 42 minutes in religious activities. If the church is going to influence our society, it needs to be on television more than ever before.

Jesus Christ and his disciples traveled from town to town preaching the good news. There were no television or radio stations to send out a mass media message. The town square and the local marketplace was the place where people heard the news of the day, discussed issues, socialized and met visitors that came to town bearing news and information from other places of the world.

Today, for many people, the town square is the television. People find out what’s going on in their community and the world by watching the local and national news. They share common events together when world tragedies unfold live before their eyes. Years later they recall what they were doing when they first saw a world-renowned event on TV.

Other shows such as American Idol, MTV’s Real World and Survivor cause viewers to be so emotionally attached to the show that it becomes important discussion among their own friends and peers. The secular producers of these shows know the importance of relevant programming. Sumner Redstone, the chairman of Viacom, which owns several popular networks such as CBS, MTV, VH1, Showtime and Nickelodeon said that “Content is King.” His content is now a major influence on our society and in many shows resorts to the lowest level of entertainment using sex and violence to tell their stories.

Churches should not sit idly by and let these worldly content providers and networks influence its kids, families and friends. It’s time for the church to take action like Sherwood Baptist Church did with their surprise successful movie, “Facing the Giants.” This movie was produced on a $100,000 budget, but made more than $12 million in the theaters and was one of the most successful independent films of 2006.

A remarkable thing is happening with technology that ultimately will benefit the church. The FCC has mandated that television stations transition to digital technology before February 17, 2009. This new digital technology allows TV stations to broadcast up to six channels over the same spectrum as the old traditional analog channel. Stations and TV networks now need more programs than ever before.

Trinity Broadcasting Network (TBN), America’s largest and most watched faith channel, has already transitioned to digital technology and is one of the few networks currently broadcasting five channels in all of its broadcast markets. This increase in new television networks has created a demand for more original Christian programs and church services than ever before.

Digital television has made it more affordable for churches to obtain their own equipment. Digital production equipment uses much of the same technology as computers and can now record on hard drives. These hard drives can transfer the video to computers and church staff can use editing software to edit high-quality shows or films.

With the Internet, churches can upload their services on their own Web site or on popular video sites such as You Tube or God Tube. New Internet television technology called streaming video and Internet Protocol Television (IPTV) allows TV networks and shows to be broadcast on the Internet. There are already more than 3,000 channels on the Internet through streaming video on computers. The higher quality IPTV networks can be viewed on regular and digital televisions using an IPTV set-top box.

Internet allows more channels

Companies such as AT&T U-verse and Sky Angel IPTV are using the Internet and the IPTV set-top boxes to deliver cable quality television to viewers that subscribe to their service. Although traditional cable companies are reluctant to add more Christian channels due to the lack of channel space, the newer IPTV companies are able to add many more channels because of the technology. AT&T U-verse carries most Christian channels in the US. Sky Angel carries about 20 Christian channels.

Cable companies that do not have the channel space to add new Christian networks are using Video on Demand (VOD) to offer more Christian shows to their subscribers. One major cable provider in a top 25 populated city is actively acquiring locally produced church services for their VOD platform. Local churches that utilize this service simply pay a small encoding fee to upload their show to the VOD platform.

The cost to purchase and produce church service programs can be daunting but benefits can be rewarding. A church service on TBN’s national network that receives just a minimum rating of .1 percent represents 100,000 viewers. It would cost hundreds of millions of dollars to build a church that could seat 100,000 people.

Yet, many churches that are on national television are reaching even more viewers than that. Joel Osteen’s program is one of the highest rated church services in America and is watched by 1.5 million households according to Nielsen Ratings. On TBN, the church services throughout the day on Sundays have ratings equal to the prime time ratings during the weeknights. This is unusual because most daytime shows have lower ratings than prime time.

Today’s churches can influence their communities by offering faith-based programming content via television, IPTV, the Internet and VOD. The church needs to make sure that the people that are spending two and a half hours watching television everyday have something that is spiritually enriching to watch. There are more great Christian movies waiting to be produced. Christians should be even more creative than secular producers. More importantly, if churches don’t seize this current opportunity in technology and the low barrier to entry, they face the possibility of losing their impact on society.

Bob Higley is vice president of affiliate sales and marketing for Trinity Broadcasting Network, Irving, TX. [tbn.org]

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