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The New Christian Media
Want to change Christian television? Now you can.

Never in the history of mass media has so much changed in five years. This is the change we've been waiting for. I have been saying for several years now that everything changes when people can sit on their couches and watch internet video on television. That day came much faster than I thought it would.

The year 2010 was the year that internet viewing shifted from predominantly short-form video to longer forms (half an hour or more). With NetFlix leading the way, the mass market began to understand how their computer or gaming console could deliver on-demand movies and television shows. Boxee, Roku, Logitech, and a few others made headway into the market with hardware devices that stream internet video to televisions. Apple TV, Yahoo TV and Google TV are now being built into telvisions from major companies, including Sony, Samsung, Vizio, Toshiba and more. (Watch Sony's brief ad for GoogleTV.)

How this will all shake out in the marketplace is anyone's guess, but one thing is certain: the internet and television are converging. Collectively called "webTV" or "IPTV," this is the beginning of a new era in media.

The Power Shift

Television and film production have long been an elite foray. Only a few could make something and deliver it to the masses. Those days are gone. Now almost anyone can make a video, television series, or even a movie. With the internet, millions of people can view it -- and they are. Just ask Lucas Cruikshank who, at 14 years of age, racked up millions of views on YouTube with "Fred," his fictional 6-year old with “anger management issues.” Cruikshank became famous and got a movie deal out of it.

The power of getting"eyeballs," an insider's term for garnering viewers, has been wrested from the rich few and given to every junior high kid with a Flipcam.

The advances of audio and video production, with cheaper and better cameras and easy-to-use computer editing systems, obviously laid the foundation for this shift, but the real key is in the distribution. What does it matter if you can shoot and edit a great piece if it's only shown to a few people? That's great for weddings and parties, but now we're talking about global viewership! The new reality is that you no longer need ABC, Nickelodeon or any other network to get your production viewed by the masses. You have the internet. And that's great news for Christian television.

Christian WebTV

To get half an hour on a nationwide Chrsitian television network, you can spend anywhere from $200 to $20,000 per airing. That's a wide range because it depends on the network and the time of day. Obviously, prime time on TBN is worth alot more than 3am on the Three Angels Broadcasting Network. On TBN, you may get 150,000 viewers. On a network with less distribution, you may get 15 viewers. Given the lack of good reporting, it's really a craps shoot. That's why the only real meaure of success lies in response, whether in the form of donations, prayer requests or product giveaways. Even then, the actual number of viewers is unknown.

Online, you know exactly how many viewers you have. YouTube tallies it up right there for everyone to see. If you're coming off of another online video network, like Limelight or Akamai, you get reports to tell you the views and, to some degree, the regions from which the viewership occured. (Supposedly, you can get reports from Amazon's media distribution service, which is much cheaper than the others, but I have yet to see dependable data on this.)

This availability of viewership data is crucial, because it gives programmers an accurate measurement of effectiveness. For example, you can send out an email and watch the number of views it generates. Then you can do a Facebook campaign and watch the numbers. Even when a spike occurs that doesn't tie in to your own efforts, you can often do some research online to figure out what happened to attract attention. All of this gives you the kind of knowledge and power that was once ridiculously expensive and reserved for media experts. By analyzing the information and learning from experience, you can build your own media empire. In the case of Christian programmers, you can learn how to effectively spread the Gospel through creative and innovative media.

Commercial Christian Television

In my 2006 article "Why Does Christian TV Suck?", I wrote at length about the issue of funding, pointing to commercial Christian television as a possible solution. I'm still getting response from that article -- everyone from programming executives at Christian networks to students entering college to study media production. In the last five years, I have been privy to a good level of inside information as several parties tried to create a successful commercial network with varying levels of Christian programming. Most have failed. I still think it could be done, especially if live events drove much of the programming block, but ad sales are a huge hurdle, especially amidst the havoc that the internet has brought upon television advertising in general.

The non-commercial model is still alive and well, but rates have dropped significantly in the last couple of years and many people have quit buying time on the major networks. On the flip side, some innovate start-ups, like lifechurch.tv, have created quality programming for internet consumption. I don't know their numbers, but I can guarantee that they are getting more bang for their buck than alot of non-com programmers. So while Christian television needs a new network model for better programming, we don't need to wait on a commercial platform or different non-com platform because the new platform is webTV. It's here, it's now and it's waiting to be conquered.

Funding

There's always the issue of money, but with production costs drastically reduced and distribution options ranging from cheap to free, financial concerns have gone from mountain to molehill. Pilot shows can be created for a few dollars. Low-budget programs with good content will get views. Schools and churches can bankroll their own ideas. Investors can start now and see the results in a very short time.

Of course, if you're in the media business full time, you have to make enough money to pay the bills. But there has never been a better time to try something. With webTV, the opportunity just gets bigger.

The Plan

The simplest plan right now is to just go for it. Outline your program, start shooting and editing, then put it on YouTube, GodTube, Vimeo or another free outlet. If you're on iTunes, you're already on Apple TV. You can upload to Roku very easily with their developers kit. Yahoo TV and Google TV require more time, skill and effort in developing their widgets or apps, but that will only get easier with time.

The gold rush is on for content. Whoever develops content that gets significant views or catches some funding interest will succeed. Someone will surely come along to collect and organize good content under a banner they can market, so the important thing now is to produce the content. There's really nothing to stop you.

However, it's important to not forsake the lessons we, as Christian television programmers, have learned over the years. The environment is different, but the basics are the same, so it is critical that upcoming generations learn from the past. Here are a few important things to keep in mind while reinventing the medium:

  1. Christian TV must always focus on spreading the Gospel. This can be expressed in many different creative forms, but the primary motivation must be to teach, illustrate and promote Jesus Christ and the things taught in scripture. Otherwise, your efforts will ultimately be meaningless. Like any endeavor at any point in time, only those things that bear spiritual fruit will matter in the end. Personal fame and fortune are dross. The Gospel is the gold.

  2. Focus your programming on the audience. Ask yourself, "What's in it for the viewer? How will this impact others?" As Rick Warren famously said, it's not about you.

  3. On a practical note, look for opportunities to pointedly ask people to take some action, like forwarding the video, signing up for an email, subscribing to a channel or "liking" your Facebook page. People that appreciate your work will want to do something, but you need to suggest it. Christian television was built on response-oriented programming for a good reason: it works.

So shoot your reality show, make your dramatic pieces, conduct your interviews, teach your topics, or do whatever it is you want to do. Chrtistian television is ready to change. It's up to you to change it.

 

Commentaries

Why Does Christian TV Suck?

The New Christian Media

The Religious Left

Devotionals

You Can Shine

Was Jesus A Failure?

Happy New Year?

A Season of Joy

Peculiar People

Living the Fantasy

Diary of a Roman Soldier

 

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